In 1994, the world stood and watched as Rwanda burned. Granted, there was little that the international community could have done to stem or prevent the violence, short of travelling back at least several years, if not several decades, to avert the pre-cursors of the violence. The international community vowed to never let such a thing happen again.

In 2015, we’re ignoring the same warning signs that we saw in Rwanda. Where, you ask? In a year dominated by Daesh and its associates in the Middle East and North Africa, another humanitarian crisis is developing; one that has gone largely unreported in the Western media. And one need not look far – if lightening never strikes twice, that doesn’t mean it can’t strike next door. In this case, the unlucky neighbour is Burundi.

Image courtesy of GovernmentZA, © 2014, some rights reserved.

So what’s been happening in the biggest news story you (probably) haven’t heard about this past year? Back in April, President Pierre Nkurunziza – the former rebel leader who claimed power following a bloody civil war ten years ago – announced he was seeking a constitutionally problematic third term. The constitution adopted at the end of the fighting made sure no president could seek a third term, but Nkurunziza claims his election by parliament – not by voters – in 2005 legitimised his campaign.

This, perhaps unsurprisingly, was not exactly popular, and protests began, which, again perhaps unsurprisingly, led to deadly violence, with protesters branded ‘criminals, terrorists, and even enemies of the country’[1]. Then – as so often happens in countries with the kind of precedent Burundi has developed since its independence – a coup was staged, and failed, in mid-May. By the presidential election in July, over 167,000 had fled the country[2], including the head of Burundi’s parliament, the Second Vice-President of Nkurunziza’s ruling government, several army generals, and members of the election commission and constitutional court (including its Vice-President) who all fled before the end of June[3]. Members of the constitutional court cited death threats from the government for opposing the legality of Nkurunziza’s campaign. Three of seven members who remained approved Nkurunziza’s constitutional right.

Least surprising was the “predictable” landslide victory for Nkurunziza in late July, amid opposition boycotts, in a vote internationally condemned as neither free nor fair. Since then Burundi has been awash with corruption, violence, torture, harassment, unlawful arrests, politically motivated assassinations, targeted and extra-judicial killings, and refugees on the run – an absolute minimum of 230,000 have fled to neighbouring countries for fear of violence[4].

All of this is eerily similar to the situation in early-1990s Rwanda. And, terrifyingly, many of the similarities match with the reasons why any kind of intervention failed in Rwanda. Yolande Bouka, a senior researcher at the Institute for Security Studies, has warned of the ‘very similar patterns of violence’ between this conflict and the civil war that killed 300,000 and led to Nkurunziza’s ascendency to the Presidency. He cites the escalation from isolated grenade attacks by small groups to events like the 11th December attacks on the capital, Bujumbura, and the perpetration of violence on both sides[5]. The fear is that attempting to control two sides in a conflict in addition to diffusing increasing tensions and violence are incredibly difficult, even when the proper resources are diverted to the endeavour. Civil war looks increasingly likely, and historical precedence in the region suggests that civil war comes hand-in-hand with genocide.

There are truly distinct parallels that can be drawn between the modern day Burundi and pre-genocide Rwanda. One such concerns our ability to see a genocide coming. In 1994, there were precious few journalists – especially foreign ones – in Rwanda. Those who were there generally resided in the cities, and once violence began in the Rwandan capital of Kigali, the few UN forces in the region were quick to evacuate them. This left next to no on-the-ground information, meaning when the genocide began there was no way for the international community to know about it. Making matters worse was the initial assumption that the violence was two-sided, again increasing the time it took for the definition of genocide to be applied[6]. As it stands, the violence in Burundi is most certainly two-sided, and that is the impression the few journalists left in Burundi will remember. That doesn’t mean that will remain the case if the conflict intensifies. Most journalists in Burundi have fled the country, and as the issue escalates these numbers will only rise. The image of the conflict could well remain that of a two-sided civil war, even if it descends into genocide. If it does, it will only elongate the killing with no reporters to show the horrors to the world.

Burundi itself is incredibly similar to Rwanda. Granted, Rwanda’s economy is currently outperforming that of its neighbour, but share an almost identical land area, population, and (estimates suggest) ethnic demography. The states – more significantly – also share a history: both were monarchies before being absorbed into German East Africa and then Ruanda-Urundi under the mandate (read colonial rule) of Belgium, before regaining independence in 1962. More specifically, the states share a history of ethnic violence between Hutu and Tutsi – largely instigated by colonial interference from Germany and Belgium – and have seen bloody civil wars, which have descended into genocide. The victims may have been different, but the unimaginable death tolls were all too similar.

One saving grace is the fact that the Burundi conflict is yet to turn ethnic. It appears that the regime’s alleged attempts to racialise the conflict are failing. This is all the better in a region where ethnic Hutu-Tutsi violence has been all too common and all too violent. This is one comparison in which Burundi does not quite stretch to early 1990s-Rwanda levels, or to that of Burundi’s previous genocides in 1972 or 1993. However, there are very real fears that the conflict will become, in the words of US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, ‘more of an ethnic conflict than a political one’. With the ‘diet of hate speech and paranoia’ being very much akin to that which helped instigate, expand, and prolong the Rwandan ethnic genocide, this only seems the more likely.[7] Perhaps the conflict will remain political and the Burundians will be spared another genocide – but that might not prevent a politicide, and it might not prevent murder on a massive scale. A conflict doesn’t have to be ethnic to involve a one-sided slaughter.

In this case it is really quite hard to think what, realistically, the international community could – or would – do. It almost goes without saying that this will not be solved domestically. If there was any chance of curbing the violence from inside Burundi, we would have probably seen it by now, and the continual crackdown on moderates and human rights advocates only further emphasises this, as does Nkurunziza’s refusal to participate in peace talks with the opposition. It is now down to the international community to do what it can to cut off the violence before it has the chance to reach genocidal levels.

But what can it do? The African Union (AU) has begun an admirable attempt to stabilise the situation by preparing to send in 5,000 peacekeepers to protect civilians[8]. Whilst this is not nearly enough troops to make an actual difference, one must consider the position of the AU. It is currently deploying 22,000 troops against al-Shabaab in Somalia. This is a major drain on their manpower, and mobilising any number of troops against Burundi puts the continued support 5,000 troops from Burundi involved in this mission at question, forcing the AU’s flagship peacekeeping mission into troubled waters[9]. To make matters worse, Nkurunziza has made it clear that any AU peacekeeping mission entering Burundi would be considered an invasion force to be fought and expelled. The situation in Burundi is a real test for the AU – it has the potential to determine the course of the “African solutions to African problems” mantra, which as of yet has gone largely untested[10]. Failure is really not an option if the AU wants to be taken as a serious peacekeeping organisation, putting the AU in an impossible situation. The intention is there, but the capability simply is not.

So what of the wider international community, those with the actual capability to stage a successful peacekeeping mission? The rhetoric of the moment is that interventions are bad, and should be staged by local forces – but local forces simply are not able to succeed. And then there’s the further lack of appetite for international intervention. In 1994 it was the shadow of Somalia, and in 2015 it was the spectre of Iraq, and it will continue to be the spectre of Iraq in 2016. The US didn’t want another Battle of Mogadishu in 1994, and today the public outcry over Iraq has blackened intervention again, even those undertaken with the best intentions and best planning. Then there’s the debate as to whether peacekeeping actually works. It does (check out Virginia Fortna’s fantastic Does Peacekeeping Work? for an excellent analysis) but conventional wisdom suggests that quite often it doesn’t, and most political leaders aren’t known for the time they spend reading academic works. This makes it all the less likely that the international community will intervene, just as they failed to in Rwanda. Once again, things don’t look promising for Burundi.

And what of the UN? Well, thus far they have done very little other than call for more regional mediation efforts and for support for the AU peacekeeping mission; that and report that ‘a complete breakdown of law and order is just around the corner’[11]. The more pertinent question regards what the UN could have done. It closed down the United Nations Office in Burundi (BNUB) in 2014 despite ‘mounting abuses and a dangerously narrow political space marked by assassinations, arbitrary arrests, attacks by unidentified armed groups, and violent repression of the opposition’[12]. Despite Burundi being among the first nations to be placed on the UN Peacebuilding Commission’s agenda, the UN instead formed the UN Electoral Observation Mission in Burundi (MENUB), an electoral monitoring mission which one senior UN source in Burundi’s capital called unfit for purpose on account of its mission chief being based outside of Burundi, no declared political officers, and internal divisions about its responsibilities[13]. BNUB was meant to promote dialogue, protect human rights, guide economic policy, and support regional integration – mandates that could have made a real difference to the current situation. Instead we have MENUB, which can only follow and report on elections; it is entirely toothless. In 1993, the UN failed Rwandans by scaling down the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) instead of increasing its size and mandate – both things that would, most agree, have made a significant contribution in minimising the scale of the atrocities of 1994. It seems as though the organisation is yet to learn the lessons of Rwanda. The reason the UN made this frankly preposterous decision to close BNUB? The government of Burundi – the very people who instigated the violence in the first place – ‘felt there had been enough progress…both politically and in terms of security’[14]. Granted, the government threatened to remove the UN altogether were this demand not met, but when the UN bows to the demands of a corrupt and repressive government of a small, economically weak nation under such little pressure, it does not bode well for the UN, its future mandates for peacekeeping and developments, or for the citizens state itself – the very people the UN was supposed to protect.

It is a crying shame. Burundi was really shaping up to be a success story, with an expanding economy and regular elections[15]. Instead, 2015 saw the country rapidly descend into a civil war, with an uncertain and certainly violent future.

[1] BBC News. “Burundi calls opposition protesters ‘terrorists’.” 2 May 2015.

[2] Hatcher, Jessica. “Burundi’s president Pierre Nkurunziza wins third term in disputed election.” The Guardian. 24 July 2015.

[3] France-Presse, Agence. “Burundian politician flees to Belgium and denounces ‘illegal’ elections.” The Guardian. 28 June 2015.

[4] Jones, Sam. “Burundi: ‘all alarm signals flashing red’ warns UN as reports of atrocities mount.” The Guardian. 15 January 2016.

[5] Allison, Simon. “Burundi gunmen attack military sites as violence intensifies.” The Guardian. 11 December 2015.

[6] Kuperman, A. J. (2001) The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention: Genocide in Rwanda, Washington D.C.: Brookings Institution Press

[7] Jones, Sam. “Burundi on ‘very cusp’ of civil conflict, warns UN human rights chief.” The Guardian. 17 December 2015.

[8] Reuters. “Burundi president threatens to fight African Union peacekeepers.” The Guardian. 30 December 2015.

[9] Allison, Simon. “Why the crisis in Burundi is tying the African Union in knots.” The Guardian. 6 August 2015.

[10] Odhiambo, Morris. “African Union cannot afford to fail in Burundi.” Daily Nation. 1 January 2016.

[11] Jones, Sam. “Burundi: ‘all alarm signals flashing red’ warns UN as reports of atrocities mount.” The Guardian. 15 January 2016.

[12] Hatcher, Jessica. “Could the UN have done more to prevent Burundi’s escalating violence?” The Guardian. 21 December 2015.

[13] ibid

[14] ibid

[15] Allison, Simon. “Africa in 2015, the pessimist’s take: war, terror and… Cecil the lion.” The Guardian. 29 December 2015.

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