Burundi: On the Brink of Genocide

Dabid Stoffey

In a year Burundi will be a common name in the news. The stories will not laud a democratic success, they will not discuss the harnessing of natural resources to benefit the nation’s economy—the people sitting in coffee shops and offices around the world will be reading about the latest genocide in Burundi. There will be a multitude of calls and ideas from every direction. The left will proclaim massive human rights violations and demand international action. The right will discuss the geopolitical value of the small African nation and demand action to preserve Sub-Saharan African peace. Isolationists will detest any intervention and cry that the plight of the Burundi people is irrelevant to that of the global community. The average person won’t be able to point out Burundi on a map, won’t be able to discuss the ethnic tension, and certainly will have no understanding of the country’s violent past. Yet these same people will claim to have the perfect solution to the Burundian conflict—however by then thousands upon thousands will have died and the conflict will be so protracted that diplomatic or militaristic intervention may likely be useless.

Burundi’s history is steeped in violence, failed governments, and extreme ignorance from the West. Burundi has seen large-scale ethnic massacres and genocides in 1959, 1963, 1972, 1988, 1993, and 1994. Over the 54 years since Burundi’s independence, the country has been racked by over a dozen different coups and almost as many different governments. Today, Burundi looks barely better than it did at any of the aforementioned dates and coups—as a major player in the Hutu-dominated genocide of the Tutsis during the Rwandan Genocide in the 1990’s, striking similarities are presenting themselves today.

Recently, Hutu members of the bicameral assemblies in Burundi have been calling to “pulverise and exterminate” rebels who are “good only for dying.” History does not always repeat itself, but this is a distinct echo from a score of years prior—Hutus proclaiming Tutsis are the problem is not something new, we saw this precursor to the Rwandan Genocide that claimed upward of a million lives.

In May 2015 protests over Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza’s unconstitutional nomination for a third term led to a coup which failed. This in turn led to tighter government control in Burundi. Nightly, police are patrolling the streets for suspects “against the government.” Over the past year this has led to fears of police abductions, torture, and murder. To the average Burundian layman, fear of the economy collapsing is rife. In government, fear of assassination pervades everything. Roughly 400 people have died in the past year due to government violence and 250,000 Burundians have fled to neighbouring Congo, Rwanda, and Tanzania, where they will not be much safer.

On May 2, 2016 the U.S. State Department released a statement calling for a “resumption of Burundian dialogue” amid concerns of decaying economic conditions and over 300 human rights violations according to the United Nations. The only problem with this statement, and the international community as a whole, is that no one genuinely wants to improve the situation. 300 human rights violations are nothing out of the ordinary in Sub-Saharan Africa, and morbidly, neither are 400 deaths.

he time for the international community to act is now. One need not look back more than 20 years to see many examples of human rights violations coupled with government sanctioned killings that ultimately led to genocide. In the 1990’s the West watched the Balkan countryside burn on their doorsteps while the Serbs, Bosnians, Kosovars blood was shed. In that same period we saw the Rwandan Genocide, rise from ethnic tensions and slaughter countless Tutsis. We watched Afghanistan broil as the civil war waged that created the vacuum for the Taliban to capitalize. The Nagorno-Karabakh conflict ignited. The Second Intifada raged. The civil war caused the Ivory Coast to burn. Hundreds of thousands died over oil in Darfur. The conflict in Sudan led multiple central African states to succumb to war. Somalia descended back into war twice. Unfortunately the list goes on and on in no short degree. In some situations the international community did something—perhaps money was donated or diplomats dispatched. Perhaps there was not a peaceful, diplomatic solution to these conflicts. We can say a greater degree of intervention from the international community would have certainly made a positive difference in all the aforementioned conflicts. When we look at these engagements, all too often we see a situation where the first world delayed action, and the price was paid egregiously in human lives.

It is crucial that action in Burundi be undertaken as soon as possible. The United Nations should send peacekeepers and members of the Security Council should dispatch diplomats to help resolve the crisis. Although UN peacekeepers have struggled in the past to prevent catastrophes, this is a safe opportunity to deploy the blue helmets and make a difference in the lives of millions of Burundians by preventing near-future genocide. The African Union should be working with the Burundian government and protest groups to understand the severity of the situation and offer peaceful, regionally oriented solutions. The AU is incentivised to protect a non-violent and civil Africa where trade and development can happen across transparent borders. The Southern African Development Community should get involved with the crisis; although Burundi is not a member state of the organisation, the SADC surrounds Burundi and a peaceful neighbour will help foster economic development and prevent violent spillover.

We should take up the advice of the State Department and expand dialogue within and without Burundi to emphasise a peaceful solution to the crisis. But we should go further. There are regional and global organisations that benefit from peaceful developing countries, whether those countries are as large and influential as Russia or as small as Burundi. There is no definitive, perfect solution yet, but that is why the communities of nations exist—to discover whatever ways crises can be resolved. Burundi hasn’t delved back into civil war and genocide, but the work has to begin now to prevent that ominous and highly potential future.

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