A deep political conflict has been brewing in the tiny, ethnically divided African nation of Burundi which has reached such critical levels as to foster alarm within U.N. official circles, some of which harbour fears that it will turn into genocide. Given the increase in killings of high profile opposition leaders, issuance of death threats to the opposing protesters, the overall atmosphere of violence in the capital, all coupled with Burundi’s bloody history of ethnic violence and civil war, it is quite likely the situation will deteriorate to war or the establishment of a dictatorship.
The current problems have their genesis in President Nkurunziza’s declaration of running for a third term in office, which is violative of Burundi’s Constitution that mandates a bar of two terms for the President. This political illegitimacy sparked off protests in the capital, which escalated into a crisis with a failed coup by one of the President’s former advisors. The government labelled all opposition to the President’s subsequent nomination and election for a third term as ‘terrorism’, and warned civilians that extreme actions would be taken against all protesters, who shall be regarded as “criminals, terrorists, and even enemies of the nation, who are fit only for dying”.
Opposition leaders, journalists, etc. were murdered, along with their families, and a situation of martial law prevailed. The police were given extraordinary powers and civilians began to be picked off the streets. It is reported that gunfire can be heard daily and the situation has further deteriorated with the government’s ultimatum to the populace to hand over all weaponry by a designated date or face “severe consequences”, all in the name of ‘pacification’. A media blackout has been imposed, and complete restrictions placed on the liberty and movement of civilians. The rhetoric being employed is dangerously similar to that used during the days of the genocide and the country is seemingly devolving towards another era of military rule, albeit this time, it will be of Hutu origin.
To understand the state of fear currently prevailing in Bujumbura (Burundi’s capital), one first needs to delve a little into Burundi’s history of ethnic conflict, which began to manifest itself after Burundi was released from the yoke of Belgian colonialism in 1962. Prior to colonialism, Burundi had a minority Tutsi-ruled monarchy, which became a convenient tool through which colonialism spread and controlled the Hutu majority. The Belgian rulers allied themselves with the tall, eugenically more beautiful Tutsis and implemented policies that favoured them, while simultaneously discriminating against the Hutus. The conflict that resulted was due to this very manipulation of ethnic identities by the political class in the struggle for postcolonial control of the state.
In 1962, Burundi gained independence from Belgium and broke away from Rwandan territory. The monarchy continued for a few years, during which there was intense conflict wherein both Tutsis and Hutus were brutally exterminated through multiple attempted coups by Hutus and the subsequent military retaliation by the Tutsis. In 1966, Colonel Michel Micombero overthrew the monarchy and established a Tutsi military regime which had but one agenda: to crush all political opposition by the Hutus, an agenda which was carried out in the form of systematic murder of all Hutu opposition leaders and 50,000 of their allies throughout his rule. In 1972, there was a war of extermination, which led to the organised deaths of almost 200,000 Hutus and moderate Tutsis by the government, which was intent on crushing not just all political opposition, but intellectual opposition as well. The policy was very reminiscent of the ethnic cleansing carried out in Nazi Germany, which didn’t target only Jews, but all people who didn’t fit within the narrow confines of blond, blue-eyed, healthy, heterosexual, conventional Aryan.
The first Hutu genocide paved the way for twenty years of Tutsi hegemony, during which period violence reigned in Burundi, with each successive clash between the Hutus and Tutsis bringing about greater damage to both communities. Finally, this conflict reached a breaking point in 1993, with the murder of the first democratically elected Hutu President, Melchior Ndadaye, by a Tutsi extremist group. The period from 1993 to 2005 marked a long decade of what has now been confirmed to be ethnic genocide of the Tutsis by the Hutu majority, which had become enraged by the long history of their subjugation and the violence that they has faced under oppressive Tutsi regimes.
Since the country’s independence from Belgium in 1962, the dimension of the human tragedy in Burundi has been anything but diminutive. Approximately 400,000 have been killed, with a mass exodus of about 800,000, and tens of thousands more have been internally displaced. These figures of death, displacement and violence are dwarfed in Africa only by the deathly catastrophe that was Rwanda in 1994, with one million people systematically murdered in the Rwandan Genocide. After the beginning of the killings in 1993, the UN decided to step in, to prevent another genocide like the one in 1972. There was also a fear in 1994, that the effects of the Rwandan genocide would spillover into Burundi. However, due to exigencies, the peace process was concluded only in the new millennium, with the signing of the Arusha Accords in 2000, the creation and approval by referendum of the constitution in 2005 and the election of Peirre Nkurunziza of the National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), a former Hutu liberation group and now a political party, as President.
Death of Democracy
The current problems in Burundi, however, seem to stem from a conventional, power-grabbing motive, rather than systematic ethnic oppression. The CNDD-FDD comprises both Hutus and Tutsis, and the murders that have taken place over the past year have only been of people and groups opposing the government, rather than ethnic groups opposing each other. Whatever be the reason, Burundi’s past is fostering mass panic amongst the local populace and minority Tutsis, resulting into the eruption of a refugee crisis in the region, with over 200,000 people having left Burundi since the beginning of the conflict, with nowhere to call home.
Many opposing civil society members and human rights advocates have also been murdered, presumably by the government-controlled military, which is not tolerating any opposition, embodying irony in itself, seeing as how this government came to power on the claims of being the defenders of democracy and harbingers of peace. The situation is threatening to undermine the Arusha Peace Accord and the Constitution itself, both of which were post-war documents, essential to bringing about peace in the country. Burundi seems to be heading towards war and totalitarianism, and the government is using this instability to cement its own position of power.
Belligerence in the government will only help foster extremism within the civilian populace, all of whose rights have been suspended. However, calling this a precursor to genocide seems premature, seeing as how no ethnic violence has erupted as of now. This can, perhaps, be credited to the intricate power sharing agreement in the Arusha Accords, wherein power was to be accorded to the Hutus and Tutsis in proportion to their population which helped solidify their relationships. Now, fractures have occurred, not on the basis of ethnicity, but political allegiances and a ravenous hunger for power. Constitutionalism, however, seems to be tottering on the brink of destruction as the government does not seem to give any credence to its provisions.
We can see that Burundi’s past of conflict is coming back to haunt the nation in the form of re-establishment of military rule. There is international pressure on the government to heed the constitution and chart out a way forward along with the other political parties. A party formed in opposition to the President’s third term known as the National Council for the Restoration of the Arusha Accords and the Rule of Law (CNARED), has been set up which is demanding that the President step down from his post in order for the violence to abate. The government’s plans to enter into talks with them, however, seems more like an empty promise rather one that holds any actual substance, primarily because of their insistence that the talks be unmediated. A large, established, incumbent political party entering into discussions with a smaller, fractured coalition speaks volumes of the power differential between them and the manner in which the talks are likely to unfold. It seems to be only a tactic to lessen international pressure on themselves and curtail any conversation on Burundi’s future as a democracy. Contrary to this seemingly accommodative approach, the government has begun threatening military action against the proposed peacekeepers who are to be sent to Burundi by regional countries making up the African Union, showing exactly how willing it is to listen. Unless the government changes its stance from one of total isolation to cooperation, Burundi’s future may be as mired in conflict as was its dark past.