Analysis by Kirsten WILLIAMS
The crisis consuming Burundi hit a new peak last week as around 100 people were killed within four days, some of them with their hands tied behind their backs. While foreign powers, including the U.S. and EU, urge their citizens and workers to leave, the economy is tanking. Is the country teetering on the brink of all-out disaster?
In April, President Pierre Nkurunziza declared his intention to run for a third term. This had been made illegal under an agreement which ended the twelve-year civil war only a decade ago. Nevertheless, the constitutional court, allegedly bowing to political pressure, allowed the President to run again. Mass protests erupted, with anti-Nkurunziza activists clashing violently with the police. Just days after the ruling, the army attempted to stage a coup while Nkurunziza attended a summit in Tanzania. The coup was a disaster, ending in chaos, and the leaders arrested. In those first months of the crisis, over 100,000 people streamed into the neighbouring countries. Now, that figure is closer to 300,000. Elections held in July handed victory to the controversial strongman, though the opposition decried the results as a sham.
In the months since then, life in Burundi has descended into terror and disorder. The UN warned last month that it was less prepared for the crisis than it had been before the Rwandan genocide. Many press reports have warned that the country is on the edge of a civil war, or indeed a genocide of its own. Is this exaggerated?
According to one Burundian journalist, it is. He criticised the international press for being too alarmist, arguing that the panic created by the media was hindering any chance of a diplomatic resolution. This is a country which has witnessed two genocides, products of ethnic strife between Hutus and Tutsis, in the past fifty years. This time, he argues, the unrest is politically motivated. Experts in Burundi agree. Another journalist points out that the mixed ethnic makeup of the government and military are likely to prevent mass murder based on ethnicity. Experts in the country appear to agree, despite Nkurunziza’s terrifying rhetoric which appears dangerously close to pre-genocide Rwanda.
Additionally, the fighting and killing has been mainly confined to urban areas, while the countryside remains peaceful. Still, police are rounding up 200 men at a time, many of whom disappear for weeks before being rediscovered – alive or dead. Attacks are also spreading. In the southwest, local militia fought police, leaving two dead and a dozen detained last Wednesday.
In the end, whether this fresh bloodshed can be correctly termed a genocide is perhaps not a key question. What is clear is that mass killings are being perpetrated with impunity and increasing frequency.
The EU has reduced its presence in the troubled country to a skeleton staff, calling on neighbouring Uganda to speed up mediation talks. The African Union, which has become increasingly adept at finding “African solutions to African problems” has been consistently blocked from entering the country with a small body of human rights monitors. The UN’s special envoy quit in June after the demands of negotiators in a possible peace settlement. However, there are signs of a firmer attitude in the last three weeks: the United States has imposed sanctions on several individuals, and the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a resolution to condemn the violence.
What does the future hold for Burundi? Few wish to speculate. The UN Security Council’s statement does open the possibility of a peacekeeping mission in the country, and other countries could join the American sanctions on government officials. President Nkurunziza, however, claims he has a divine right to rule and with a powerful security force around him, he remains fairly untouchable. The Ugandan talks will continue only when mediators can bring all parties to the table. The soaring bad debt of the country means that life is likely to get much, much worse in the crisis-stricken state before it gets better. For now, lessening the burden on host states by helping to provide shelter and food for the new wave of refugees would be a practical short-term solution. In the long term, there are major discussions to be had about whether the Arusha Accords, conceived to bring peace to Rwanda, are still relevant given the spate of domestic conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa. Burundi, along with South Sudan and the Central African Republic, is tearing at the seams.