Unrest In Burundi: A Central African Crisis


With the ongoing violence in South Sudan, acts of terror in Somalia and continual unrest in the DRC, it can be easy to overlook the crises afflicting some of Africa’s other central nations. This is certainly what appears to have happened to Burundi. Though not in an outright state of conflict, the country has been in a period of political crisis since 2015, characterized by infrequent acts of violence. The fact that Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world only adds to this instability. The crisis is not fully-fledged here – severe famine is not compounding the situation like it is in Nigeria or Somalia, and there have not yet been any acts of ethnic cleansing like there were in Burundi’s past. Yet, even if the crisis is not in an acute stage if it is allowed to continue, it is likely to have serious long-term consequences, not only for Burundi itself, but for the country’s neighbours too.

The situation in Burundi stems from President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision in 2015 to run for a third term in office, an act which, according to his opponents, violates the terms of the Arusha Accords, published ten years prior. This agreement had brought Burundi’s twelve-year civil war to an end. The country has a long history of violence mostly stemming from deep tensions between rival ethnic groups. Like its neighbour Rwanda, the two principle groups in Burundi are the Hutus and the Tutsis. Unlike in Rwanda, the inter-ethnic violence of Burundi is relatively unknown. Since decolonisation in 1962, the country has witnessed two genocides: one in 1972 against the Hutus and another in 1993 against the Tutsis. The latter would lead to the country’s civil war in which around 300,000 people from both groups were killed. The Arusha Accords, which marked the end of the conflict, sought to heal the nation’s ethnic divides. By pushing for more equal representation in Burundi’s public bodies and the integration of various rebel groups into the military, the accords helped to ensure that no one felt disenfranchised in the new political landscape. The same year, Nkurunziza was elected as president with his party: The National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy (or the CNDD-FDD). He was an ideal candidate to bring the country together, coming from a mixed Hutu/Tutsi background. Yet long before his decision to run for a third, illegitimate term, Nkurunziza was demonstrating a desire to shut down his opponents. In the run-up to the election, opposition members were intimidated and the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the CNDD-FDD, was accused of various acts of political violence. Since becoming president, Nkurunziza has continued on this trajectory, curbing press freedoms, and restricting public gatherings in 2013.

The response to the situation in Burundi has been limited at best. The international community has questioned the legitimacy of Nkurunziza’s decision to stay on, but not a great deal more than that. Given that the situation here has been overshadowed by crises in other African nations, and that numerous governments have been replaced by new administrations since 2015, it is likely that many foreign observers are treating it with low priority. They are mistaken in doing so. Though the crisis in Burundi might not currently be in a critical stage, there is no evidence to suggest that it could not flare up at some point in the future, and there is always the risk that ethnic tensions, previously dampened by the Arusha Accords, will erupt once more. The problems facing Burundi’s neighbours like the DRC might be more immediate, but if the violence here is allowed to continue, it could easily spill over the borders and contribute to a wider, regional crisis.

Within Africa, there have been moves to engage both sides in peace talks. A leading figure in this push is Yoweri Museveni, president of Uganda. As of yet, he has been unsuccessful in bringing both sides to the table. Perhaps he is not the best choice as a mediator – having been president of Uganda for over thirty years, Museveni is unlikely to inspire confidence in Nkurunziza’s opponents who strongly believe in limited presidential terms. For the sake of the peace process, a more suitable figure should be chosen. Some national and international observers have gone for a more involved approach. Back in 2015, the African Union tried to deploy five thousand peacekeepers in Burundi. In response, Nkurunziza threatened to set his troops against them, so the plan was abandoned in the next month. The UN’s attempt to send a 3,000-strong police force to the country was similarly rebuffed by the president, who would only accept a maximum of twenty officers. Given these responses, it is clear that the deployment of troops in Burundi – for combat or peaceful purposes – should be avoided, as Nkurunziza is paranoid, and sees any kind of military presence as a challenge to his authority.

If the president of Burundi is against external intervention, and neither side is willing to engage in talks, what can be done? As implied, the international community needs to pay more attention to the crisis and put more pressure on Nkurunziza. It would be difficult to imagine this causing him to stand down, but it should hopefully stem the continual human rights violations that are a product of the war. Just last month, UN investigators announced that opponents of the regime are being abducted, tortured and killed. The report was written off by Burundi’s UN ambassador as “partial and tendentious.” In this case, Nkurunziza’s government feel that they can dismiss the claims, as they are only coming from one source. If multiple nations involve themselves in looking into the abuses, Burundi will find it harder to ignore them. For the observer states, it will help if they are primarily from Africa; otherwise, Nkurunziza could respond to his critics with a claim of Western interventionism.

Ultimately, the only real way for the situation in Burundi to end is for Nkurunziza to call another election and stand down. This has to be a key part of the peace agreement, as his opponents will accept nothing less. The CNDD-FDD has claimed that Nkruniziza was originally selected by Burundi’s legislature and not by the people, and therefore could stand for another election. Whatever the technicalities of the situation, he must surely recognize the damage he is doing to his country by staying in power – a country he was meant to bring together. Though it has yet to happen, the conflict could well escalate into ethnic unrest if it is allowed to continue. Moreover, by staying in power, Nkurunziza is providing a bad example to other leaders who might also be tempted to stay in power for longer than they are allowed to.

Achieving peace is more than just bringing the war to an end. Efforts will need to be made by Nkurunziza and his successor to right the wrongs committed during the conflict. If injustices are left unanswered, resentment will linger and future Burundian governments may face stability issues. A move in the right direction was made in January when Nkurunziza pardoned and freed 2,500 prisoners, many of who were incarcerated for political reasons. Yet the same month, the government banned the Iteka League, Burundi’s oldest human rights body. War crimes and human rights violations like those identified by the UN must be investigated and answered for, not ignored. To help with this process, Nkurunziza should also revoke the repressive legislature his government has passed over the course of the war – legislature which could easily be abused by another government down the line.

If all of the above is done, there is a good chance that Burundi can return to its pre-war state. Unlike certain conflicts elsewhere in the world, like the Syrian Civil War, the unrest in Burundi appears to have an end in sight. Inter-ethnic violence between the Hutus and the Tutsis, which scarred the country in the past, has yet to emerge. But if the conflict is allowed to continue for much longer, such violence could return. The crises and wars afflicting other parts of Africa, which are characterized by more intense fighting, clearly must be prioritized. However, if the unrest in Burundi, which has already displaced 400,000 people, intensifies, then it could easily worsen the situation in neighbouring countries. Wars in this region cannot be treated as entirely separate conflicts.