Africa Watch

Burundi’s threatening genocide needs urgent attention

Can AU bring Burundi peace?

The attempt by the president of Burundi to tamper with the country’s constitution has brought it to the brink of ethnic conflict, requiring urgent intervention from the African Union in particular.

Burundi will be one of Africa’s most burning issues in 2016. As one analyst correctly summarised it, “the stakes are extremely high for the African Union (AU)”.

Concern is growing that if not resolved soon, the political crisis, mainly an intransigent president, in the small landlocked nation of eleven million people could rapidly escalate into civil war and genocide.


As often happens in Africa, Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza decided he was not yet ready to relinquish power and started to tamper with the constitution to allow him a third term.

His actions caused major discontent, which soon escalated into political violence, including a failed coup in 2015.

Nkurunziza responded in a heavy-handed manner. Security forces were allowed free rein to clamp down on opponents and so-called dissidents. 

As could be expected, regular reports of arbitrary and extrajudicial killings, mass arrests, detention, torture, rape, targeted assassinations and the discovery of mass graves followed.

According to media reports, over 400 people were killed, but the general view is that the number is much higher. More than 240 000 have fled the country, the economy took a nosedive and the country is on the brink of imploding.

Thus far domestic, regional and international pressure and attempts to broker a solution between the Nkurunziza government and its opposition have failed, but the pressure is mounting.

There are moves afoot to suspend Burundi from the East African Community (EAC) and the AU, but all eyes are on the United Nations (UN) and AU to break the current impasse.

Historical perspective

Reports that the violence is taking on an ethnic character are causing fears to mount of a repeat of the ninety days of carnage and bloodletting in 1994 in neighbouring Rwanda when Hutu hardliners orchestrated the mass slaughter of an estimated 900 000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.  

Burundi and Rwanda share the same ethnic mix of a majority Hutu (85%), and a Tutsi (15%) minority and a history of past ethnic tension and conflict.  

Burundi did not escape 1994’s genocide. While the world’s attention was captured by Rwanda, thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus were also massacred in Burundi.

Estimates put deaths due to mostly ethnic cleansing conflicts between 1993 and 2005 in Burundi at more than 300 000.

The spark that ignited genocide in both countries was almost identical.

In Rwanda it was the controversial downing, in a clear assassination, of an aircraft carrying the country’s then-president, Juvenal Habyarimana and his Burundi counterpart, Cyprian Ntayamira. It happened as they came in to land in Kigali, Rwanda’s capital.

Ironically, they were returning from an EAC leadership meeting in Tanzania, seeking ways to end the ethnic violence in the two countries.

At the time of the incident the situation was particularly bad in Burundi, where by then up to 100 000 people had already been killed after the assassination of the country's first democratically-elected president and a Hutu, Melchior Ndadaye, in October 1993.

The genocide that followed in Rwanda soon overshadowed similar events in Burundi.

Outside intervention aimed at ending ethnic division and strife in Burundi succeeded only after protracted negotiations, facilitated first by former president Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and then Nelson Mandela of South Africa. The Arusha Accord, signed in August 2000, ended the violence.  

An intricate power-sharing formula between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority was put in place. It worked relatively well until Nkurunziza decided to challenge the status quo.

Chance to redeem

Finding a solution to Burundi’s political crisis will go a long way to redeem both the UN and the AU for past failures.

Both organisations failed miserably to prevent the 1990’s genocide in Burundi and Rwanda – a failure that will haunt them for eternity.

The UN Security Council (UNSC) has been trying to help find a solution to the problem created by President Nkurunziza. In the last ten months the UNSC twice visited Burundi to push for an end to the crisis, without success.

Meanwhile it has all but passed the baton to the AU. After its last meeting earlier this month, when Nkurunziza once again showed his intransigence, the UNSC turned to the AU to map out the next steps to bring the Burundi crisis to an end.

The usual hurdles restricting the UN from taking prompt and decisive actions are again obstructing progress, according to Thierry Vircoulon, Central African consultant at the International Crisis Group

UNSC permanent members agree that the situation demands urgent intervention, but disagree on the way forward. 

The irritation caused by the UN’s usual ineptness, administrative red tape and notoriously slow processes, was best illustrated by Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UNSC. She wrote in December last year: “Burundi is going to hell and there is no contingency planning, no UN presence, no dialogue.”

That the AU is taking full responsibility for solving the Burundi crisis, could be a blessing in disguise for the organisation.

It is the AU’s primary task to take responsibility for peace and security in Africa. Its record, however, is dismal. Burundi could change it all.

But it has to draw a line in the sand, set the tone for what can be expected if in future the political leadership of a member state transgresses.

President Nkurunziza must be made to understand that his actions will have consequences. Any piecemeal or appeasement approach, advocated by some UNSC and AU members – including deploying an international police force, or the deployment of a hundred AU human rights monitors and military experts – will not deliver results and only prolong the inevitable when, according to the Egyptian ambassador to the UN, Nkurunziza is “in total denial about the dangers of his policy”.

It no longer acceptable for governments and their leaders to hide behind “the non-intervention in internal affairs” mantra so often conveniently used to cover up blatant transgressions and human rights violations. 

Political leaders and governments should firmly and unequivocally be called to order when their policies and actions present a threat to their people or to interstate relations.

The Nkurunziza government stands guilty on all these counts and must be called to order.     

Remarkably firm

Thus far the AU stance, particularly by its 15-member Peace and Security Committee (PSC), has been remarkably firm and looks promising.  It was suggested in December last year that 5 000 peacekeepers be deployed to Burundi.

But it would be disastrous if the AU should backtrack, and all credibility would be lost. On the flipside, an analyst wrote, “sending a force against Burundi's wishes could be seen as a precedent that will frighten a number of African governments”.

In doing so the AU will invoke Article 4 of its charter, giving it the right to intervene in a member state “in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity”.

Intervening and deploying peacekeeping troops to Burundi against the wishes of its government would be a first for the AU. Only firm action like this will help the AU to build the image it wants to portray of an organisation than can and must make a difference to the lives of the people of Africa.

(This article was completed before last week’s AU Summit Meeting in Addis Ababa where Burundi was high on the agenda.)

by Garth Cilliers

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