“Leaders in Burundi have spewed hateful rhetoric, and terrible acts of violence have taken the lives of innocent men, women and children,” President Barack Obama warned the world in a video message late last year. What should have been a wake-up call went largely unnoticed, garnering just over 50,000 views. It didn’t help that the video was published on 13 November, the same day hundreds of people were killed and injured in terrorist attacks in Paris.
Since then, the situation has gone from bad to worse. But still the rest of the world seems distracted by other crises, seemingly unaware of the unfolding disaster in Burundi.
Covering up the true extent of the violence
The crisis currently sweeping through Burundi began in April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he was running for a third term, in violation of the country’s constitution.
The day after Nkurunziza made his announcement, thousands of people took to the streets in protest. Police responded by shooting live ammunition into the crowds, killing two and injuring more. The president remained defiant: “I would like to warn everyone: whoever wants to create problems with the ruling party elected by the people, will find himself in trouble,” he said.
After an attempted military coup was thwarted in May 2015, protests continued throughout the summer but were suppressed, often with brutality. “Burundian police used excessive lethal force, including against women and children, to silence those opposed to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term,”warned Amnesty International.
Nkurunziza was re-elected in July 2015, but the violence did not abate. By November of the same year, around 2% of Burundi’s population had fled to neighbouring countries.
A month after President Obama’s video message, close to 100 people were killed in Burundi’s capital, in response to attacks against military and government targets. Witnesses described seeing victims – some as young as 12 – shot execution-style with their hands tied behind their back.
While the government at the time attempted to downplay the situation, at the end of January 2016, Amnesty International released satellite imagery revealing five possible mass burial sites: “These images suggest a deliberate effort by the authorities to cover up the extent of the killings by their security forces and to prevent the full truth from coming out,” the human rights group said.
Despite the escalating violence, little is being done to bring the situation under control. At the end of 2015, the African Union said it would send 5,000 peacekeepers to quell the violence and return order. But just a few months later, it backtracked, opting instead to send diplomats to hold talks.
A painful past
“From Burundi’s painful past, we know where this type of violence can lead,” Obama cautioned in his video message. Indeed, to really understand what’s happening in the country – and why people are so worried – it’s important to put it into some historical context.
In 1993, in the country’s first democratic elections, Melchior Ndadaye, an ethnic Hutu, was elected president. Until that point, the Tutsi minority had held power in both the government and military. But just three months into office, Ndadaye was assassinated during a failed coup led by Tutsi soldiers. Revenge attacks proliferated and soon the country was locked in a bitter, ethnic-based civil war. “Members of each ethnic group feel that they are collectively engaged in a death struggle against extermination or subjection,” the United Nations wrote at the time.
When the bloody conflict ended 12 years later, 300,000 people – 5% of the pre-war population – were dead and thousands more had been displaced. But thanks to the terms outlined in the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, the country was able to put the past behind it. “We are leaving a dark period of conflict and moving towards a new era of democracy,” former President Domitien Ndayizeye said after the agreement was reached. The agreement is, the African Union says, “the cornerstone of peace, security and stability” in the country.
One of the central pillars of the agreement was the recognition that the conflict in Burundi was caused by “a struggle by the political class to accede and/or remain in power”. To prevent such situations from arising again, the agreement called for a new constitution, which outlined a clear power-sharing structure between the Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority, and set a two-term limit for presidents.
This delicate political balance was already thrown out of kilter back in 2010, in elections that the IPI described as “a logistical success but a political failure”. Only one candidate – Nkurunziza, the incumbent – ran for office, and the opposition boycotted the process, dismissing it as a “joke”. When Nkurunziza announced in April that he would run for a third term, the tenuous political entente collapsed, triggering the violence we’re seeing today.
Where to now?
With the government clampdown on media outlets, it’s difficult to have a clear and impartial understanding of how the situation on the ground is unfolding. “Since the start of the crisis, most of Burundi’s independent media houses have been shut down. The only stories coming out of the country are from state-owned media or those brave enough to share updates on Twitter or blogs,” points out Huguette Umutoni, a specialist in the World Economic Forum’s Africa team. According to Reporters Without Borders, journalists attempting to report on events have been threatened, attacked and forced into hiding.
This shortage of information has left many people outside the country speculating about the where this is going. “Make no mistake,” says David Gakunzi, a Burundian scholar living in France, “what’s happening in Burundi is the start of genocide.” Others have spoken of the worrying parallels between Burundi today and Rwanda before its genocide. The “inflammatory and threatening language” being used in Burundi is “very similar to language used before and during the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda,” cautioned Adama Dieng, the UN’s special adviser on the prevention of genocide.
Others have objected to the comparison. “Stop calling the violence in Burundi genocide,” Patrick Hajayandi of the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation wrote in an op-ed for the Guardian. “The current crisis is much more political, and not divided along ethnic lines.”
But as the Council on Foreign Relations has been quick to point out, whatever term is used to describe the situation, it is worrying, and the world needs to sit up and pay attention: “Ethnic rifts may be less salient, but political divisions have become explosive. Burundi’s conflict is unlikely to culminate in genocide; however, the re-emergence of civil war could be just as devastating.”
This is an updated version of an article first published on 27 November 2015.