President Nkurunziza and US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power. AP Press Association Images/STR. All rights reserved.“I have lived in Burundi for 60 years,
but I have never seen this: women raped in their homes, bodies mutilated,
thrown in common graves, castrated, burnt, decapitated…I don’t know how to
describe it”, Maggy
Barankitse told me.
Barankitse is a Burundian activist who
had to flee the country in June last year after an arrest warrant was issued
against her. Her only crime? Speaking up against the president, Pierre
Most place the beginning of the current
Burundian crisis in April 2015, when president Nkurunziza announced that he
would stand for elections for the third time. This is unconstitutional: the
constitution stipulates that a president can only rule for two five-year terms.
Trying to bypass this rule, Nkurunziza argued that he had not been elected by
the people but chosen by parliament at the beginning of his first mandate, in
2005. His third term should,
therefore, only be counted as a second term.
The announcement of his third candidacy
led to hundreds of predominantly young people taking
to the streets in protests against the president.
These were violently
On 5 May 2015, the constitutional court approved
the president’s third term bid, reportedly following pressure from the
government, and leading to renewed protests that resulted in at least 13 people
being killed. And the death toll would go up to at least 70 before Nkurunziza
was re-elected in
July 2015, in an election that the opposition boycotted.
In Burundi, access to state power also means access to wealth.
Nkurunziza’s re-election did not lead to
a halt in the conflict. On the contrary, the government has continued its
crackdown on protests: arresting anyone involved, killing and torturing those
who speak up. The UN
has documented cases of gang-rape and mass graves.
All independent media platforms have
been closed down, as confirmed by journalist Bob Rigurika in a recent
interview to Freedom House. Rigurika himself had to flee Burundi for
revealing crimes implicating the government. He is one of the 200,000 reported
to have fled Burundi in October 2015. This number continues to grow; the UN’s
most recent figure is 230,000, but this, according to Barankitse, is a low
estimate, as many do not report having fled.
Importantly, Nkurunziza’s victims
are mainly young people, members of the Tutsi ethnicity. A conflict that
started purely as a political conflict is now being described by the president
as an ethnic conflict. The message he wants to send to the international
community, Barankitse says, is that he is a popular president, and that the
only people who want to take him down are Tutsi, a minority with a nostalgia
for political power.
To understand what Barankitse means, we
need to take a step back and look at her country’s history. Since its
independence from Belgium in 1962, Burundi has been unstable at best, genocidal
at worst. Inhabited by a majority of Hutu (85%), and a minority of Tutsi (14%)
and Twa (1%), the country held its first democratic elections in September
1961. In 1965, the assassination of the then prime minister Pierre
Ngendandumwe, followed by the killings of Tutsi civilians in the city of
Muramuya, signalled the start of what Pierre Buyoya (president of Burundi until
2003) has called the “infernal cycle”, in his 1998 book Mission Possible:
Construire une Paix Durable au Burundi. From then on, ethnic identities would
be used as the main way of gaining or maintaining political power, and along
with it access to wealth.
In Burundi, access to state power also
means access to wealth. Exclusion from politics, then, generates high
dissatisfaction and can lead to ethnic tension. Burundi has experienced more
than one episode of genocidal violence. In an article published in 2007, “The
Burundi Peace Negotiations: An African Experience of Peace-Making”, Patricia
Daley outlined the figures involved: “an estimated 200,000 people have been
killed in 1972 and a further 20,000 in August 1988, and since [President]
Ndadaye’s assassination in 1993, warfare waged by the military and
government-backed militias against rebel groups and their supporters has killed
some 200,000 people and forced over 350,000 into exile”.
Riot police & anti-government demonstrators, Bujumbura, Burundi, 2015. Press Association Images/J. Delay. All rights reserved.A brief look at the several conflicts
that have afflicted Burundi since its independence could lead to the conclusion
that they were simply ethnic in nature. But a careful analysis reveals a more
complex picture, where the roots of the conflicts can be traced back to
regional, gender and class contests, and, more importantly, to political and
economic inequalities. The ethnic factor has mostly been used by elites as a
way to mobilise the masses.
In a weak economy, where productive
resources are scarce, the struggle for access to these resources is extremely
competitive. Furthermore, as highlighted in a
2012 report by International Crisis Group, control of the resources of the
country depends on control of its institutions. Political leaders have used
their power to mobilise and manipulate cultural and ethnic differences to
strengthen local support and consolidate their hold on power. Opportunists have
practised politics along ethnic lines and used ethnic polarisation to reach
their own political goals.
Ethnicity has proved time and again to
be a powerful mobilising force for elites. In sum, the story of conflict in
Burundi is, as Linda
Maguire said in 1995, “one of competition for resources, for power over
those resources, and for a voice in governance. It is not, at its base, an
What the president is doing today is
nothing more than a repetition of what has happened in the past; he is
transforming what was born as a purely political conflict into an ethnic
conflict. Patrice Cimpaye, spokesperson for the opposition party CNARED-GIRITEKA,
who had to flee Burundi in 2010 for opposing the government, told me that he
firmly believes that the government is now instrumentalising a historical
ethnic hatred. According to Barankitse and Cimpaye, the president is playing
the ethnic card, in an effort to regain popularity. Having not managed to keep
the country under control by getting
rid of “disloyal” soldiers and rebellious members of
the government; nor by attacking the main neighbourhoods
hosting the protests, he has settled for his last resource.
The risk of a genocide cannot be overestimated.
The ethnic card is extremely dangerous
in a country like Burundi, where it has worked time and time again. It is
dangerous in a country that is being depopulated, where the population is
hungry, tired and demotivated. The risk of a genocide cannot be overestimated,
and it needs to be stopped now.
It has to be acknowledged that the UN
and the African Union have tried to negotiate with the president. On 18
December 2015, the African
Union announced its intention to deploy a force for the maintenance of
peace in Burundi. This was strongly resisted by the president, who defined it as
force”. No actions have been taken by the African Union since.
Very recently, on 21 January 2016, a delegation
of the UN Security Council paid its second visit in a year to Burundi. The
purpose of their visit was to encourage the president to enter into dialogue
with the rebels and to accept the deployment of a force of the African Union.
Unfortunately, in an interview released on 22 January, the head of the
Power, said: “we did not achieve as much, frankly, as I think we would have
We are seeing an ethnic conflict
unravelling in front of our eyes. All the critical elements are present: a poor
and hungry population; a country that has time and again been divided along
ethnic lines; a president that is determined to remain in power despite
internal and external pressures; an international community that is not ready
It is time for this to change.
It is time for the
international community to intervene and send a peace mission; for
international media to properly cover this conflict; for the Burundian forces deployed in Somalia
to return to their country and protect their citizens. And for everyone to
speak out and decisively shout that they will not let another genocide unfold.