Burundi: crisis and warning

Bujumbura, Burundi (openDemocracy) – Burundi is “going to hell.” That’s according to Samantha Power, the United States ambassador to the United Nations. Few observers would disagree. The country is witnessing daily mass killings, while its government rejects any outside intervention as it seeks to impose a violent, retributive and increasingly ethnicised grab for total power. Burundi’s immediate future looks grim.

Many see the root of the current crisis in the controversial re-election of Burundi’s current president, Pierre Nkurunziza, for a third term in office in July 2015. But it’s clear that the problem goes back much further: far beyond even the Arusha peace deal of 2000, and into the complex web of violence of the early 1970s and after.

In 1972, Burundi was subject to sustained and horrific bouts of ethnic massacres, which bore all the hallmarks of genocide. A Hutu uprising in the south of the country led to the mass killings of thousands of Tutsi and Hutu who refused to join the rebels. The Tutsi military government of the president, Michel Micombero, responded by launching a bout of ethnic-based slaughter against Hutus throughout the country. Tens of thousands of Burundians fled into neighbouring countries, including Rwanda, destabilising an already volatile situation there.

Pierre Nkurunziza and several of today’s senior figures, such as the Nyamitwe brothers, Alain (foreign minister) and Wily (government spokesperson), were orphaned or lost close family in the atrocities.

Two decades on, in 1993, the first democratically elected Hutu president, the moderate Melchior Ndadaye, was assassinated by senior Tutsi officers led at the time by Colonel Jean Bikomagu. The killing was the signal for ethnic slaughter, with many Hutu again fleeing into Rwanda (which again, as in 1972, was in a precarious state of unrest). Six months later, in April 1994, the deaths of the new Burundian president and his Rwandan counterpart marked the start of the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi, led by the Hutu extremist government of Jean Kambanda in Kigali.

Burundi from 1993-2000 was wracked by a ethnically-based civil war that cost 300,000 lives, until the Arusha peace agreement became the basis for later ceasefires and brought some political stability. The ensuing years witnessed a degree of economic and political calm, though old scores and tensions continued to fester.

The tipping-point

In 2015, President Nkurunziza’s attempt to secure a disputed re-election for a third term provoked a political backlash from an emboldened Hutu and Tutsi opposition. Nkurunziza’s campaign also split his own ruling CNDD-FDD party: biting criticism focused on his increasingly autocratic style, rampant corruption, closure of media and civil-society groups, and violent suppression of opposition rallies. Many opponents inside his party and from the opposition fled to Belgium or countries in the region.

The army has always occupied a pivotal position in the country. The Arusha agreement specify that it should be evenly balanced between Hutu and Tutsi, though in reality it leans around 60-40 towards the Hutu majority. Amid signs of incipient splintering, it seems clear that there was a planned and organised attempt to ditch the Arusha agreement and bring the army back wholly under Hutu control, while President Nkurunziza purges the country of civilian opposition (either by doing deals with his most dangerous Hutu critics or driving them out of the country). An indication of this came weeks after the election, when Palipehutu leader and former rebel army officer Agathon Rwasa abruptly changed sides to support Nkurunziza after accepting the senior government post of deputy speaker of parliament. As in Rwanda in 1993, when Juvénal Habyarimana split Hutu opposition parties by “buying off” long-term critics, it is a highly effective political tactic.

The CNDD-FDD’s splits over Nkurunziza’s third-term bid are now healing as party hardliners pursue a new agenda that smacks of ethnic score-settling. An early November speech in the local Kirundi language, by Reverien Ndikuriyo – the president of Burundi’s senate and the third most senior member of Nkurunziza’s government – is chilling in this respect: “people must start working”, he told members of Bujumbura’s municipality. In 1994, “to work” was the coded expression used by Rwanda’s Hutu extremist government and media, whose real meaning was “to kill” the Tutsis.

Ndikuriyo, a powerful force in the ruling CNDD- FDD party, had already toldopposition supporters in April, before the disputed election, that mass suicide may be their best option. As in Rwanda in 1994, proponents of violence, while officially pronouncing the need for dialogue and mediation, are using other platforms to issue a far more radical and destabilising message to local supporters.

The increasingly powerful “youth wing” (Imbonerakure) of the ruling party adds to the division. It bears a striking similarity to the Interahamwe – the youth militia of the MRND party of Juvénal Habyarimana that took a leading role in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. The Imbonerakure have for some years been used to terrify opponents, and are linked to numerous extra-judicial killings and ethnically targeted violence. The movement works alongside (and in many cases within) the official police force and Nkurunziza’a political party, and has access to official vehicles, police uniforms, funding and intelligence for its highly effective campaign of terror. For example, its senior commander, Victor Burikukiye, is a former army colonel and vice-president of the ruling CNDD-FDD.

After an attempted coup in May failed to stop Nkurunziza’s third-term bid, the killing began in earnest. On 2 August the Hutu former intelligence chief and Nkurunziza loyalist General Adolphe Nshimirimana was murdered; in what seems a direct revenge attack, retired Tutsi army chief Jean Bikomagu was shot dead, with the suspicion this was for his alleged part in the killing of former president Ndadiye in 1993.

Every day has seen bodies of young men found on Bujumbura’s street, notably in key opposition areas such as Nyakabiga, Musaga, Cibitoke, Jabe and Mutakura. Witnesses report young men have been taken from their homes and executed, sometimes by unidentified’ attackers, others by police, security forces or militia. An Amnesty International briefing noted how as police went from house to house arresting, looting and killing victims. These included a disabled man, a teenage egg seller, domestic worker, and mobile-phone seller. A number of those killed were children including a 15-year old boy shot in the head as he ran to escape the regime killers.

On 11 December, a reported ninety people were killed (local observers put the number at nearer 200), after the military said it repulsed attacks on three army bases in Bujumbura. In the capital, it is noticeable that those specifically targeted in what the government euphemistically calls “operations against the enemy” are young Tutsis soldiers, as well as alleged Hutu opponents of the government. The targeted murder of young Tutsi recruits at ISCAM (Burundi’s “West Point”), where they were arrested and taken away to be eliminated, suggests a planned and systematic attempt to purge the army of all Tutsi elements. Tutsi recruits and junior officers are now reported to be in hiding or remaining at home rather than go into their barracks for fear of what may happen to them.

Burundian opposition members allege that a senior group of army, government, police and militia meets each Tuesday at CNDD-FDD headquarters in Ngagara where action is planned for the coming days. They name a closed circle of power around Nkurunziza whose senior figures include Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni (minister of public safety), Evariste Ndayishimiye (head of the civil cabinet at the presidency), Gervais Ndirakobuca (police organiser), Brigadier Etienne Ntakarutimana, and Valentin Bagorikunda (judiciary).

The president’s role

The closure by the government of civil society, human rights and media groups in recent months, and the expulsion of foreign freelance journalists even for posting a single photo or article, makes the task of tracing the killers and their motivation far more difficult. No arrests have been made of those accountable for the killings, indeed the government uses the excuse of the violence to continue its planned policy of arresting/exterminating other “terrorist” elements.

Where does Nkurinziza, the 52-year old president, fit into this picture of mounting ethnically targeted violence? Is he leading it, being pulled along by hardliners, or – having gained his objective of a third term – now backed into a corner where extreme party supporters expect him to continue the current policy of ‘cleansing’ the country of all opposition, both violent and peaceful? It is not clear whether Nkurinziza, who has moved from his own home in Ngozi near the Rwandan border due to fears for his personal security, has the political will or ability to end the conflicts he did so much to spark.

Nkurinziza and his wife, both Pentecostal church pastors, continue to be highly popular among Hutu peasants in the countryside where his football prowess and “man of the people” persona is a strong draw. But his image has changed more than once: once nicknamed “Umuhuza” (the unifier) for bringing the country together after Arusha, he is now seen again as a tough killer; a recent cartoon depicts him as a Kalashnikov-wielding “Pierrminator”. There are strong parallels to Habyarimana’s 1990 tactic of seeking to unify the Hutu majority behind a call to “rise up” against former Tutsi oppressors, one that justifies mass arrests and killings against perceived “traitors” based purely on their political opposition or ethnic background.

The past teaches that Burundi, and its neighbour Rwanda, can descend to a level of mass violence and destruction that is almost unparalleled in African and indeed world history. If the killings and violence continue to bear an ethnic dimension, there is the real possibility that Burundi will tear itself apart in another civil war, with political opposition and some members of the military joining forces against Nkurunziza’s rule. Moreover, regional actors, notably Rwanda, could well be drawn into the conflict.

The regional dimension

Paul Kagame, Rwanda’s president, is so far the only African leader to come out publicly to denounce events in Burundi and its leadership. On 6 November he said that in Burundi, “Leaders are spending time killing people. Bodies of dead people are scattered everywhere. Refugees are wandering everywhere – women and children – and you want to call this politics? What kind of politics is this?” There is growing exasperation in Kigali that while western and regional envoys are shuttling to and from east African capitals getting “updates” on the situation, no subsequent meaningful action has resulted, except for limited aid cuts and sanctions. Rwanda, as with the DR Congo and Tanzania, is now hosting tens of thousands of refugees from the violence in Burundi, with no end to this forgotten human crisis in sight. More than 220,000 highly vulnerable and traumatised Burundians will spend this Christmas in foreign refugee camps with little prospect of a return home, where they feel their own government may kill them.

While UN secretary-general Ban Ki-Moon declared that Burundi is on “the brink of a civil war that risks engulfing the entire region,” Samantha Power vented her frustration in an email to UK and French missions in New York on 11 December by describing the UN Security Council meeting that had considered a report from its envoy to the regions as “pretty pathetic… No contingency planning, no UN presence, no dialogue.”

Even more possible difficulties litter the road ahead: international sanctions, threats of UN war-crimes charges, and more aid reductions. The effect of such a policy has so far hit the mass of Burundians most at risk without causing Nkurunziza much pain. Targeted cuts by international donors such as Belgium and the US have resulted in vital healthcare support for children and the most vulnerable being axed. Mounting corruption, a slump in commodity prices and output, and a collapse of tourist revenue, are among the less visible ingredients of a wide-ranging crisis.

So what are the possible outcomes to resolve the impasse?

Both the African Union and the UN, stung by criticism of their passivity, have made gestures towards active involvement. At a special session of the UN human-rights committee in Geneva on 17 December, the forty-seven members heard its high commissioner describe Burundi as on the cusp of civil war. Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein told delegates there needed to be immediate action with “those responsible for human rights violations and instigating violence subject to sanctions, including asset-freezes and travel bans… The situation needs urgent, concerted, decisive attention from the international community.” The resultant decision by the UN body was to mandate the sending of a mission of experts to report back on what was happening. The Security Council condemned the violence on all sides and the “persistence of impunity as well as of inflammatory statements made by Burundian political leaders.”

Mediators from the regional countries, the East African Community (EAC), led by Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni have been criticised for failing to give Burundi the serious consideration it needs. Museveni in particular, while “keeping daily abreast of developments” has failed to engage a situation he is charged with mediating. The EAC’s parent body, the African Union, finally moved further on 18 December, saying it is ready to deploy 5,000 troops to Burundi within days in an African Prevention and Protection Mission (MAPROBU). The aim would be to protect civilians and allow for talks aimed between the parties in the conflict to try to reach a peaceful resolution. The deputy chairman of the AU commission noted that “the African Union and international community cannot sit by and watch genocide” happen if the situation “is going to develop into that genocide.”

Yet no peace talks seem possible as long as Nkurunziza and hardliners in his army, government and party seem set on using the current crisis to “clear out” all civilian and military opponents, and threaten to establishing a monopoly on power in direct contravention of the Arusha agreement. In addition, the opposition is fragmented and its aims uncertain; there is no unified position on whether it would be prepared to settle for Nkurunziza to remain in power with power-sharing restored, or is seeking a complete overthrow of a man labeled as a quasi-dictator and killer. The location of coup leader, General Godefroid Niyombare, who failed in May to unseat Nkurunziza, is still not known, and this remains another destabilising factor.

The CNDD-FDD-led government unanimously rejected the AU-authorised peacekeeping force in a debate on 21 December saying they have a democratically elected government and a fully functioning army and police which are working well. An AU force would, according to deputy presidential spokesman Jean-Claude Karerwa, be considered as “an invasion and occupation force.” The impasse over whether African peacekeeping troops will be allowed into Burundi seems set to continue. Even if they were allowed to enter – a highly unlikely situation – the mandate is unclear over whether they would be allowed to physically intervene to stop militia, police or army repression or to arrest those found responsible for extra-judicial killing, torture or violence. There has been no mention yet by the AU as to which countries would provide the peacekeeping force, its funding, logistics or when and for how long they would be in Burundi. Such an intervention force can take weeks or months to equip and move into the conflict zone. What is apparent is that the clock is ticking inside Burundi with each day, allowing the regime to make further inroads into neutralising those it feels threaten its long-term hold on power.

The last throw?

Image Source: Dave Proffer, Flickr, Creative Commons Downtown Bujumbura

Image Source: Dave Proffer, Flickr, Creative Commons
Downtown Bujumbura

One mediator that could offer a move away from the abyss is the Vatican. Despite its highly controversial history in Rwanda, there is a chance that – with backing from the UN and western states  – it can act as a mediator in Burundi, where it has been far more neutral in its political positioning over the last decades. Given the vital work the Vatican achieved in achieving a peace in Mozambique it may be able to convince both government and opposition of the need for conciliation. Even then, rebuilding trust, civil society, and independent media – and once more banishing the ghosts from the past – will require tremendous political determination. In the first instance, a radical strategic about-turn from Nkurunziza would be needed. While any peacekeeping force may be months away from action, if indeed it is ever accepted, talks between the opposing sides need to start directly, as does the work of human-rights monitors.

Any peace talks – whether led by the East African Community, the Vatican or UN – would need to get as many as possible of the splintered opposition around the table, as well as Nkurunziza’s representatives. The opening issues to resolve include what the opposition aims to achieve by continuing armed unrest against the government, and how the CNDD-FDD sees its own future. Are the hardliners aiming to dismantle the Arusha agreement in favour of absolute power; and at what point, if any, will they be prepared to rein in the Imbonerakure and police?

On 1 December, in a small corner pocket of land by the busy Impala roundabout in Arusha, a new “peace park” was inaugurated. Funded by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), which recently announced its final verdicts after twenty years based in the northern Tanzanian town, the park is meant to be a lasting, visible reminder that those who order, plan and take part in genocide and crimes against humanity will be brought to face justice. Putting aside the often derisory sentences handed out by the ICTR to those convicted of the most serious crimes, the peace park should be a reminder to the Burundian leadership that for crimes already committed – and for any future descent into violence – they will be ultimately held accountable. However, prevention is far better than lengthy, highly expensive trials and controversial sentences. Survivors of the horrors of 1972-73 and 1993-2005 will testify to that.

This report was prepared by ANDREW WALLIS  for openDemocracy.