Escalating violence in Burundi

Even when there are constitutionally mandated term limits, many leaders try to hold on to power. In Central Africa (where the small country of Burundi, with its population of 10 million, is located) there are several leaders that have tried, or are trying, to bend the rules to stay in office. The DR Congo, Burundi's giant neighbour, is currently the site of a democratic movement to try to uphold the Constitution and stop President Joseph Kabila from changing the rules to stay in office. Rwanda is sometimes called Burundi's 'twin': it has about the same land area. It has about the same population (slightly higher), which has the came ethnicities in the same proportions (Tutsi minority, Hutu majority, and Twa). It was once jointly ruled with Burundi by the colonial powers. In Rwanda, too, the president, Paul Kagame, has recently made all the necessary moves to stay in power beyond his term limits – a special exception to the Constitution, just for him.

The current round of political violence in Burundi began in April when its president, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced that he intended to seek a third term in office. In May, a military coup was attempted against him, and failed. In July, Nkurinziza was re-elected with 69% of the vote, after months of heavy-handed tactics. The opposition did not recognize the legitimacy of the result. A major crackdown on the opposition by the government began in November – hundreds killed, hundreds of thousands displaced to neighbouring countries. Now, after the failed coup and the disputed election, Nkurunziza's government is facing an armed rebellion.

Rebels attacked military bases on December 11th with 87 deaths before the attacks were repulsed. The next morning the capital city, Bujumbura, woke up to find 34 murdered bodies in the streets, probably extrajudicial executions. The UN special advisor on the prevention of genocide, quoted in the journal Foreign Policy, raised a dire warning: “I am not saying that tomorrow there will be a genocide in Burundi, but there is a serious risk that if we do not stop the violence, this may end with a civil war, and following such a civil war, anything is possible”.

Some context: Burundi has lived through civil war before, as well as dictatorship and genocide. Scholar Rene Lemarchand has called Rwanda and Burundi “genocidal twins”. Had Burundi's post-independence ended up a little bit differently, the whole region may have seen a lot less anguish. Immediately after independence in 1959, a multi-ethnic unity party led by a massively popular young leader, Prince Louis Rwagasore, was set to take power electorally. Rwagasore was assassinated by a European in 1961. Within a few years, a group of Tutsi military officers seized power and proceeded to rule an ethnically exclusive state with an iron fist.

In 1972, in the context of a Hutu rebellion, the establishment organized a genocide against Hutu, killing hundreds of thousands, targeting intellectuals and potential leaders. There were new massacres against Hutus in 1988. In 1993, when a Hutu leader, Melchior Ndadaye, won a democratic election, he was assassinated by the army. More massacres followed, and a civil war began. These events, and the refugees of these massacres, influenced events in Rwanda, including the 1990-1994 civil war and the 1994 genocide that occurred there.

Burundi's civil war ended through a negotiated settlement in 2006, with a UN force installed (its mandate ended at the end of 2014). Analyst Patrick Hajayandi describes the arrangements agreed upon in the settlement:


“The armed and security forces of Burundi are composed of 50% of Hutu and 50% of Tutsi, in line with the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Accords, and the Global Ceasefire Agreement...


In the current national and local government, as well as in both the Parliament and the Senate, officials are also composed of Hutu and Tutsi, at a rate of 60% and 40% respectively. Unlike in previous pogroms that afflicted Burundi, in 1972 and 1993, the integrated nature of social and political life significantly diminishes the prospect of an unraveling genocidal conflagration.”

Hajayandi advocates a cautious approach based on dialogue, and argues that warnings of imminent genocide and talk of foreign military intervention will inflame a situation that could be kept at a low-intensity and resolved through negotiation. Burundi's citizens, he writes, are “war-weary”, and have shown “great resistance against efforts by war mongers and ethnic entrepreneurs”.

These “war mongers” may include Rwanda, Burundi's “twin”. Former UN official Jeff Drumtra told journalist Ann Garrison that, working in the Mahama refugee camp for Burundian refugees in Rwanda, he saw a Rwandan rebel recruitment (perhaps better described as conscription) effort. The rebels would be conscripted and then sent into Burundi. In a letter to the Washington Post, Drumtra cited an al Jazeera story from July about the recruitment of Burundian rebels in refugee camps in Rwanda.

If Drumtra is correct and the “hand of Rwanda” is at work here, it would not be the first time. Successive waves of rebellions in the eastern DR Congo, most recently the M23 rebellion, were conducted by Rwandan proxies. Rwanda's president Paul Kagame fought in a war in Uganda, came to power in a war in Rwanda, and ran one war after another in the DR Congo. It would be an obvious observation to note that he favours military solutions over other kinds.

If diplomatic efforts are going to succeed in de-escalating Burundi's conflict, they may have to apply some pressure on Rwanda to stand down as well. This was done successfully with M23 in the DR Congo, and could be done again.

First published at TeleSUR English: http://www.telesurtv.net/english/opinion/Escalating-Violence-in-Burundi-20151212-0018.html

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