Unrest in Burundi

In Bujumbura, which is the capital of the east Africa country of Burundi, residents woke up on Saturday 12th December to at least 39 corpses scattered lying on its streets.

The UN has reported that since the failed coup attempt by army officers in May 2015, more than 240 people have been killed and many have fled the country. The President Pierre Nkurunziza opted to run for a third term in office earlier this year and the contested election in July 2015 led to this new crisis for Burundi.

After Nkurunziza won the election for the third term in July, his government gave those in opposition five days to surrender. However, since then violence has greatly increased and disturbed the daily lives of the world’s second poorest country. Anti-government protesters were targeted and small uncoordinated groups have been fighting against the government’s third term.

The African Union (AU) described Nkurunziza’s third term as illegal and the opposition leader Agathon Rwasa suggested the July election was a ‘joke’. The social differences between Tutsi and Hutu contributed to political unrest during past civil wars, causing the deaths of more than 200,000 innocent lives. However, the present carnage is geared against the installation of the government for the third term. The present conflicts clearly demonstrate that the government is in an awkward position in facing the opposition. This causes serious doubts about the government forces behind these crimes.

The BBC has reported on details given by the Col Gaspard Baratuza that on Saturday, “79 enemies were killed, 49 captured and 97 weapons seized”. The question arises – who was the enemy? The answer is simple. The opposition to the Nkurunziza’s are the enemies of the government. It should be remembered that the government’s warned of a crackdown against those who refused to surrender and remained opposed to Nkurunziza’s third term. Thierry Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group stated that the message Nkurunziza government likes to spread across Burundi is that there is ‘nothing left to negotiate but accept his victory’. This indicates that Nkurunziza’s supporters are backed up by government in their clashes with the opposition. History shows authoritarian leadership has no morality. They will act in contravention of the constitution in order to hang on to power. This has caused outrage in society.

There is a fear that the previous ethnic tension between the Hutu and Tutsis may reoccur. The events in Burundi pose a serious challenge to all peacemakers including the UN and their close associates.

The UN has considered sending peacekeepers to Burundi and has urged political dialogue. After the recent violence the UN has reaffirmed its warning that human rights violators will be held individually accountable. However, the UN has strong reservations about taking further action on this issue because Burundi has 5000 peace keeping troops deployed in the neighbouring African state of Somalia. The AU also has the same hesitation in moving forward for the same reason because of Somalia. Any hard diplomatic move against the wish of the Nkurunziza would have a direct impact on the devastated state of Somalia since the Burundi government would withdraw its troops. At present the on-going crisis in the Middle East has diverted the concentration of the major powers towards Syria rather than in Africa. This is to the advantage of Nkurunziza.

The increasing strategic interest of the West in the Middle East region has meant that it has lost its hold over Africa and opened up an opportunity for the Chinese to spread their influence. Since the US President Obama has taken charge of the White House he has apportioned less importance to Africa than to any other continent. Hence, Africa’s vulnerability has been a non ending beginning. Many states conflicts are just mitigated rather than completely resolved. Firstly, this is because the West has not given enough importance to Africa’s problems and has just left it to the AU and the UN. Secondly, although China’s influence has been quickly growing in Africa, they have a strong stance of non-interference even for ‘just’ issues. Their eyes are only fixed on seizing economic opportunities rather than advising the governments. This approach cultured close ties with Burundi. This is shown by the presence of China’s ambassador among the important guests at Nkurunziza’s third term swearing in ceremony.

For Burundi, Uganda is an extended neighbour alongside Rwanda. Since the crisis began, Uganda’s President Museveni held talks with Burundi’s ruling elite and the opposition to facilitate an end to the political deadlock. The only hope for the UN and the AU now would be mediation through the Museveni. Meanwhile, the BBC has reported that “The trail has begun in Burundi for 28 people accused over May’s attempt to oust President Pierre Nkurunziza”. The information that has continually been communicated from Bujumbura since the start of Nkurunziza’s third term has not been encouraging. Burundi’s immediate neighbour Rwanda’s past cruel memories should to be taken as a lesson in dealing with Burundi. The West and the international community’s presently approach appears to be looking at Burundi from a historic perspective where ‘Africa is the dark continent’ and let the future too. “Arrogant men set the city ablaze, but wise men calm the furry” (Hebrew Proverb). Nkurunziza’s acts seem to be that of an arrogant man; the international community must be wise enough to take moral responsibility and avoid further loss of innocent life in Burundi.

(Antony Clement is a writer on Strategic Affairs).

Antony Vigilious Clement
Antony Vigilious Clement
Antony Clement is a Senior Editor (Indo-Pacific), Modern Diplomacy, an online journal. He is a researcher in Indian Foreign Policy. He is currently working on two books - “The Best Teacher” and “Diplomacy in Tough Times”. His research centres on India’s diplomacy & foreign policy and extends to domestic politics, economic policy, security issues, and international security matters, including India’s relations with the US, the BRICS nations, the EU and Australia. His recent book is “Discover your talents.”