Burundi is a state in turmoil: a political crisis accompanied by escalating levels of violence, is threatening to plunge the country into conflict – little more than ten years after the end of a devastating 12-year civil war which left 300,000 dead.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra-ad Al Hussein, recently said that ‘’all the alarm signals – including the increasing ethnic dimension of the crisis – are flashing red’’ indicating that a ‘’complete breakdown of law and order, is just around the corner’’. President Obama has also expressed concerns, stating in November: ‘’from Burundi’s painful past, we know where this type of violence can lead. Leaders in Burundi have spewed hateful rhetoric, and terrible acts of violence have taken the lives of innocent men, women and children.’’
Since the turn of 2016 the situation has become far worse, as violence has continued almost un-noticed by the outside world. If the situation is not stabilized soon, Burundi’s unfolding crisis could quickly descend into a return to full-scale civil war.
The current crisis began in April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he was running for a third-term in office, in violation of the country’s constitution. In response, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in protest. Police responded by opening fire on the crowds, killing two people and wounding many others.
The violence has continued to spread and an attempted military coup was thwarted in May 2015, by which time more than 217,000 people had fled to the neighbouring states of Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Little has been done to bring the violence under control, with peace talks put on hold and the African Union (AU) opting not to send a peacekeeping force.
Over the past 10 months since the crisis began, the violence has escalated. Government forces have responded brutally in the face of opposition, launching a campaign of murder and intimidation in the neighbourhoods where the protests originated. An atmosphere of fear and impunity now prevails, as the independent media has effectively been shut-down, and human rights organizations have been forced out of the country.
According to the UN, at least 439 people have been killed in the conflict so far, whilst disappearances have become routine. The most widely-publicized act of violence to date occurred on 11th December, when security forces responded to an attack on military installations in the capital city Bujumbura, by executing at least 87 civilians within the space of just a few hours. The UN estimated that at least 130 people were killed in December, making it the deadliest month in the conflict so far.
There have been allegations of large-scale arrests and extra-judicial detentions in ‘secret prisons’, whilst there have also been accusations of torture and documented cases of sexual violence against women. Witnesses and satellite images have indicated the existence of at least nine mass graves, which have appeared in and around the capital in recent months.
When considering the historical context of violence in Burundi, the outlook for the current conflict looks increasingly dangerous. The previous civil war began in 1993, after the democratic election of President Melchior Ndadaye. President Ndadaya was ethnically Hutu; whereas previously the country’s political elite had been dominated by the minority Tutsi population. Just three months into his term, Ndadaya was assassinated, leading to a cycle of revenge attacks, after which the country became locked in a bitter, ethnic-based civil war.
The conflict ended in 2005 after 12 long years, which had resulted in 5% of the total population being killed, and thousands more displaced. A new era of democracy was ushered in with the signing of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement. Crucial to Burundi’s future stability and integration of the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups, the agreement recognized that the conflict was caused by ‘’a struggle by the political class to accede and/or remain in power’’, as opposed to being a result of ethnic hatreds.
The new constitution outlined a power-sharing structure and set a strict two-term limit for presidents. It was president Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third-term, in opposition to the constitutional limit, which initiated the current political crisis and ensuing wave of violence.
So far, the opposition movement has remained largely united across ethnic lines. However, this situation is dangerously at risk of fracture – a development which would almost certainly result in a rapid descent towards civil war. The government has been accused of playing the ‘ethnic card’, demonising communities and attempting to divide the population for their own political advantage.
The UN Special Advisor on Genocide, Amada Dieng, has spoken of this worrying trend, suggesting: ‘’we can observe today in Burundi, a clear manipulation of ethnicity by both the government and opposition. We know that ethnicity can be used to divide populations and spread hatred among them, which can have tragic consequences.’’
This worrying development, evidenced by the direct targeting of Tutsis by the security forces and more divisive government rhetoric, is a sign that the conflict is beginning to take on a distinctly ethnic dimension.
Some analysts have highlighted parallels between Burundi today, and neighbouring Rwanda in the build-up to its 1994 genocide, in which 800,000 people were killed. Others have argued that the current crisis has so far remained predominantly political in nature, and has not yet divided the population along ethnic lines.
However, in a country plagued by past conflict, and with its political leaders seemingly willing to incite hatred and stir-up existing divisions, there are growing signs that Burundi – a country which has enjoyed relative peace, stability and progress over the last 10 years – has been set on a rapidly deteriorating trajectory by its political elite, leaving ordinary citizens fearful of a return to civil war.