The Battle for Burundi

By Javan Latson


Twenty-one years ago, the world watched in horror as hundreds of thousands of Rwandans died over the span of about 100 days. This tremendous event showed the world what could happen when the international community waits too late to act. Now, years after the events of Rwanda we see another potentially gruesome conflict brewing in the neighboring nation of Rwanda. Will the international community not intervene as they did back then, or will they act now in order to stop a political uprising from becoming a destructive civil war?

Even with today’s heavy media attention on the Middle East, the conflict in Burundi is relatively uncovered. This landlocked East African nation is one of the poorest countries on earth, with a population of around 11 million, and a per capita GDP of $900. After a 12-year civil war, which resulted in the deaths of 300,000 people, the country has enjoyed a relative sense of peace. This is not the case now, as this small nation is on the verge of another civil war.

Tensions arose in April when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he was running for a third term. This caused the citizens of Burundi to protest what they viewed as unconstitutional and a violation of democracy that was guaranteed in the Arusha Agreement, which only allows two terms in office. Despite opposition from the people, members of the Burundian Constitutional Court were coerced by the government to rule that Nkurunziza could indeed run for reelection under the fear of death. Dissatisfied with the ruling, more than 500 protesters rallied in the suburb of Musaga to voice their opinions regarding the presidential campaign. In the month of May, following protests and demonstrations calling for Nkurunziza’s resignation, a group of military officers attempted a coup in order to depose the president, which failed miserably.

 Despite a lack of popular support, and calls by foreign leaders to concede power, President Nkurunziza won a third term in office with a whopping 73 percent of the vote. US Secretary of State John Kerry called the elections, “a deeply flawed electoral process marked by violence and a disregard for the civil and human rights of the citizens of Burundi”.  In spite of the added foreign pressure, the President shows no signs of budging, and the harsh words of the international community have not been enough to sway him into respecting the Arusha Agreement.

The country has descended into lawlessness as renegade groups such as the Imbonerakure terrorize civilians. The Imbonerakure is a non-governmental youth militia that operates under the implicit approval of Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD (National Council for the Defense of Democracy—Forces for the Defense of Democracy) party. They act as an extension of governmental power, to force people to accept the president’s third term and to quell opposition. The group, which is predominantly Hutu, (the majority ethnic group in Burundi) has been accused of surrounding a Tutsi (a minority ethnic group) refugee camp on May 15th and threatening to kill refugees. They also face accusations of making unlawful arrests, handing people over to intelligence agents, torture, and beating civilians. The increasing hostility towards the country’s minorities from Imbonerakure has caused many to flee the country.

Over the past few weeks, police and military crackdowns against protesters and opposition groups have expanded. On December 11th 87 rebels were killed in the capital city of Bujumbura during an attack against military bases in the area. Col. Gaspard Baratuza of the Burundian military said that the attack was an attempt to stock up on weapons and ammunition and that “The army has defeated them seriously”. Following the attack there were reports of bodies (mainly of young civilians) found on the streets of residential neighborhoods in what appeared to be an act of retaliation against areas suspected of harboring rebels. Many of the bodies had bullet wounds in the head, and one was found tied up with eyewitnesses saying that the victims were pulled out their homes and executed by police.  The crackdown has created a state of tension in the country and has been condemned by international human rights watches.

Fed up with the abuse of power by the government, extrajudicial killings, and human rights violations, citizens have formed an organization to topple President Nkurunziza.  These rebels united to form a resistance called Forebu (Les Forces Republicaines du Burundi). The group’s goal, as stated by colonel turned rebel Edward Nshimirimana, is to “drive out Nkurunziza by force and restore the Arusha accord and democracy”. The government can no longer deny the existence of uniformed rebellion or even widespread dissatisfaction in the country.  During this period of civil unrest, the government claimed the constant firefights were the results of individual criminals and insurgents. Forebu is a physical manifestation of the sentiments of the Burundian people and refutes the government’s idea that there is not a unified uprising-taking place in the country. With a public face, the rebel movement has a greater chance at a full-blown war than as a political uprising.

The ongoing violence in Burundi has concerned many nations including the US. The State Department issued a travel warning in December 2015 recommending that all US citizens evacuate the country.  The African Union even offered to send in peacekeepers to quell the violence, but the Burundian government refused, claiming that they will attack any AU troop that sets foot in the country without permission. Burundi is a sovereign nation and has the right to determine whether or not foreign soldiers are allowed within its borders, leaving the African community in a quagmire. Following Nkrunziza’s decision to seek a third term in April, more than 200,000 people have fled the country with more than half of them being 17 years old or younger. Many of these refugees have fled to Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which are developing nations faced with significant internal problems of their own.  Some of these refugee camps, like Nyargusu in Tanzania, which has 150,000 people, are extremely overcrowded and lack the resources to take care of such a large population as a result. There are reports of Burundians in Rwandan refugee camps being forcibly recruited by military groups such as the National Forces of Liberation rebels and the Imbograburundi. These groups train them, and send them back to Burundi via the Democratic Republic of Congo to fight against the government in a blatant violation of UNHCR regulations.  

The possibility of another devastating war, along with an escalating refugee crisis cannot continue go unnoticed. However, many of the big players at the UN such as Russia, the UK, and the US seem uninterested in the plight of the small African nation. While this may not be genocide per se such as Rwanda or Darfur, the likelihood that this can become a war where thousands are killed and more are displaced is quite high. While some express optimism about the experience that the international community had in ending East African conflicts such as the recent Kivu Conflict in the Congo, others are justifiably pessimistic about the international response, given the world’s history of inaction towards African genocides.

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