Burundi on the Brink of Genocide

Soldiers of the Burundi National Defence Forces (Image: AMISON)

A decade ago Burundi suffered a 13-year-long conflict, which left 300,000 people dead. This last month, fears that Burundi will fall into another conflict of such magnitude intensified to a state of high alert. According to the UN Burundi could be on the brink of a civil war that would have terrifying consequences for both the country and its neighbours. Although President Nkuruziza has tried to claim that the atmosphere of the country is peaceful, with the only violence coming from a small group of trouble -makers, the evidence is stacked against him.

The world cannot allow itself to be haunted again by the guilt of failing to intervene

The crisis in Burundi escalated in April this year when protestors took to the streets to demonstrate against Nkurunziza’s unconstitutional third term in office. Since then around 400 people have been killed due to protests, 220,000 have fled to neighbouring states and 15,000 have been displaced within the country itself. Last month, at least 87 people were killed due to attacks on three military areas. Burundi’s security forces have since been accused by Human Rights Groups of carrying out unjustified killings in response. This escalating violence led Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, to conclude that the violence is at risk of becoming “more of an ethnic conflict than a political one.” This is a conclusion that international bodies have been reluctant to draw, hoping that the horrendous, ethnically motivated violence in both Burundi and the neighbouring country Rwanda would not be at risk of repetition.

The government has rejected the decision to deploy a peacekeeping force

Over the past months however, such hopes seem to have been dashed. Reports suggest that backers of Burundi’s regime have taken to rallying support by using language that has disturbing connotations. Reports suggest that the words “work”, “action” and phrases such as “no time for sentimentality” have become increasingly widespread. Although such phrases may mean little to Western readers, for those in Burundi and Rwanda, they hark back to the Rwandan Genocide. During the atrocities committed during that dark time, the term “work” was synonymous to “kill” with a focus on “eradicating” the Tutsi minority.

African Union has consequently stated that, “Africa will not allow another genocide to take place on its soil” and has since decided to deploy a 5,000 strong peacekeeping force to curb ongoing violence. This force has been tasked with “the protection of civilian populations under imminent threat” along with creating the “necessary conditions” for a peaceful resolution. The African Union has given this force a 6-month mandate to fulfil its objective.

We must hope that the government of Burundi intends to change its stance rapidly

However, despite the evident deterioration of peace in Burundi, the government has rejected the decision to deploy a peacekeeping force. Abayeho, a spokesperson for the President stated, “We have a…democratically elected government that should be consulted before making such decisions.” He concluded that Burundi would not allow foreign troops to enter Burundi because “We don’t need them.” This refusal by the government to welcome the peacekeeping force puts it in a difficult position with the continent’s largest political body. Eratus Mwencha, deputy chairman of the African Union Commission described Burundi’s response as “sad”. He stated that, given the government of Burundi had demonstrated an inability to protect its people, the AU has been put in a position where they have an obligation to intervene.

With the realities of ethnic violence branded onto the memory of this region, we must hope that the government of Burundi intends to change its stance rapidly. Regardless of the President’s decision however, the world cannot allow itself to be haunted again by the guilt of failing to intervene. One way or another, this violence must be brought to an end. Genocide must not be allowed to consume the region in the way the UN Secretary-General has predicted it might.

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