In Burundi, we are seeing the creation of an ethnic conflict

Bujumbura, Burundi (openDemocracy) – “I have lived in Burundi for 60 years, but I have never seen this: women raped in their homes, bodies mutilated, thrown in common graves, castrated, burnt, decapitated…I don’t know how to describe it”, Maggy Barankitse told me.

Barankitse is a Burundian activist who had to flee the country in June last year after an arrest warrant was issued against her. Her only crime? Speaking up against the president, Pierre Nkurunziza.

Most place the beginning of the current Burundian crisis in April 2015, when president Nkurunziza announced that he would stand for elections for the third time. This is unconstitutional: the constitution stipulates that a president can only rule for two five-year terms. Trying to bypass this rule, Nkurunziza argued that he had not been elected by the people but chosen by parliament at the beginning of his first mandate, in 2005. His third term should, therefore, only be counted as a second term.

The announcement of his third candidacy led to hundreds of predominantly young people taking to the streets in protests against the president. These were violently repressed.

On 5 May 2015, the constitutional court approved the president’s third term bid, reportedly following pressure from the government, and leading to renewed protests that resulted in at least 13 people being killed. And the death toll would go up to at least 70 before Nkurunziza was re-elected in July 2015, in an election that the opposition boycotted.

Nkurunziza’s re-election did not lead to a halt in the conflict. On the contrary, the government has continued its crackdown on protests: arresting anyone involved, killing and torturing those who speak up. The UN has documented cases of gang-rape and mass graves.

All independent media platforms have been closed down, as confirmed by journalist Bob Rigurika in a recent interview to Freedom House. Rigurika himself had to flee Burundi for revealing crimes implicating the government. He is one of the 200,000 reported to have fled Burundi in October 2015. This number continues to grow; the UN’s most recent figure is 230,000, but this, according to Barankitse, is a low estimate, as many do not report having fled.

Importantly, Nkurunziza’s victims are mainly young people, members of the Tutsi ethnicity. A conflict that started purely as a political conflict is now being described by the president as an ethnic conflict. The message he wants to send to the international community, Barankitse says, is that he is a popular president, and that the only people who want to take him down are Tutsi, a minority with a nostalgia for political power.

To understand what Barankitse means, we need to take a step back and look at her country’s history. Since its independence from Belgium in 1962, Burundi has been unstable at best, genocidal at worst. Inhabited by a majority of Hutu (85%), and a minority of Tutsi (14%) and Twa (1%), the country held its first democratic elections in September 1961. In 1965, the assassination of the then prime minister Pierre Ngendandumwe, followed by the killings of Tutsi civilians in the city of Muramuya, signalled the start of what Pierre Buyoya (president of Burundi until 2003) has called the “infernal cycle”, in his 1998 book Mission Possible: Construire une Paix Durable au Burundi. From then on, ethnic identities would be used as the main way of gaining or maintaining political power, and along with it access to wealth.

In Burundi, access to state power also means access to wealth. Exclusion from politics, then, generates high dissatisfaction and can lead to ethnic tension. Burundi has experienced more than one episode of genocidal violence. In an article published in 2007, “The Burundi Peace Negotiations: An African Experience of Peace-Making”, Patricia Daley outlined the figures involved: “an estimated 200,000 people have been killed in 1972 and a further 20,000 in August 1988, and since [President] Ndadaye’s assassination in 1993, warfare waged by the military and government-backed militias against rebel groups and their supporters has killed some 200,000 people and forced over 350,000 into exile”.

Riot police & anti-government demonstrators, Bujumbura, Burundi, 2015. Press Association Images/J. Delay. All rights reserved.A brief look at the several conflicts that have afflicted Burundi since its independence could lead to the conclusion that they were simply ethnic in nature. But a careful analysis reveals a more complex picture, where the roots of the conflicts can be traced back to regional, gender and class contests, and, more importantly, to political and economic inequalities. The ethnic factor has mostly been used by elites as a way to mobilise the masses.

Image Source: European Commission DG ECHO, Flickr, Creative Commons ECHO Assistance in Burundi With the end of civil war in 2005, Burundians have embarked on reconstructing their nation. Photo credits: EC/ECHO Martin Karimi

Image Source: European Commission DG ECHO, Flickr, Creative Commons
ECHO Assistance in Burundi
With the end of civil war in 2005, Burundians have embarked on reconstructing their nation. Photo credits: EC/ECHO Martin Karimi

In a weak economy, where productive resources are scarce, the struggle for access to these resources is extremely competitive. Furthermore, as highlighted in a 2012 report by International Crisis Group, control of the resources of the country depends on control of its institutions. Political leaders have used their power to mobilise and manipulate cultural and ethnic differences to strengthen local support and consolidate their hold on power. Opportunists have practised politics along ethnic lines and used ethnic polarisation to reach their own political goals.

Ethnicity has proved time and again to be a powerful mobilising force for elites. In sum, the story of conflict in Burundi is, as Linda Maguire said in 1995, “one of competition for resources, for power over those resources, and for a voice in governance. It is not, at its base, an ethnic conflict”.

What the president is doing today is nothing more than a repetition of what has happened in the past; he is transforming what was born as a purely political conflict into an ethnic conflict. Patrice Cimpaye, spokesperson for the opposition party CNARED-GIRITEKA, who had to flee Burundi in 2010 for opposing the government, told me that he firmly believes that the government is now instrumentalising a historical ethnic hatred. According to Barankitse and Cimpaye, the president is playing the ethnic card, in an effort to regain popularity. Having not managed to keep the country under control by getting rid of “disloyal” soldiers and rebellious members of the government; nor by attacking the main neighbourhoods hosting the protests, he has settled for his last resource.

The ethnic card is extremely dangerous in a country like Burundi, where it has worked time and time again. It is dangerous in a country that is being depopulated, where the population is hungry, tired and demotivated. The risk of a genocide cannot be overestimated, and it needs to be stopped now.

It has to be acknowledged that the UN and the African Union have tried to negotiate with the president. On 18 December 2015, the African Union announced its intention to deploy a force for the maintenance of peace in Burundi. This was strongly resisted by the president, who defined it as an “invasion force”. No actions have been taken by the African Union since.

Very recently, on 21 January 2016, a delegation of the UN Security Councilpaid its second visit in a year to Burundi. The purpose of their visit was to encourage the president to enter into dialogue with the rebels and to accept the deployment of a force of the African Union. Unfortunately, in an interview released on 22 January, the head of the delegation, Samantha Power, said: “we did not achieve as much, frankly, as I think we would have liked”.

We are seeing an ethnic conflict unravelling in front of our eyes. All the critical elements are present: a poor and hungry population; a country that has time and again been divided along ethnic lines; a president that is determined to remain in power despite internal and external pressures; an international community that is not ready to intervene.

It is time for this to change.

It is time for the international community to intervene and send a peace mission; for international media to properly cover this conflict; for the Burundian forces deployed in Somalia to return to their country and protect their citizens. And for everyone to speak out and decisively shout that they will not let another genocide unfold. Not again.

This report prepared by NATH GBIKPI  for openDemocracy.