Alarm bells: What ever happened in Burundi?

Alarm bells: What ever happened in Burundi?

It is almost a year since the small landlocked nation of Burundi, in the African Great Lakes region, burst into the world headlines. Experts and commentators feared a repeat of the 1994 ethnic genocide next door in Rwanda when between half a million and a million people were slaughtered. The current crisis in Burundi erupted in May 2015 when the long-time autocratic president, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced he would run for a third term; a decision at odds with the 2005 constitution. As a result, half of the constitutional court’s judges fled the country, a failed coup d’état was launched by dissident generals in the capital, Bujumbura, several cities saw mass protests and, subsequently, Nkurunziza oversaw a systematic crackdown, with hundreds of activists and journalists disappearing, being detained, or even being murdered. 

Today the headlines have virtually disappeared, but the political upheaval and ethnic tensions remain. At least 300,000 Burundians have fled to neighbouring countries since May 2015. This year, more than a hundred refugees have crossed the Tanzanian border. Not only does the exodus ruin already poverty-stricken families and further damage the developing country’s economy, but it also places massive pressure on the historically fragile nations that border Burundi. Ethnic tensions in the Great Lakes region still linger underneath the fabric of everyday life and governments continue to disseminate dangerous ethnic-based propaganda in an effort to divide and conquer. 

Nkurunziza’s death squads have followed the refugees across the borders, hunting them down and abducting, torturing and killing them. Survivors say they have no choice but to arm themselves and there are reports of Burundi’s opposition parties equipping militias in Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Rwanda. The United Nations and human rights groups say nine mass grave sites, suspected to have been used by the Burundi army, have been discovered, and mass rape is being used as a weapon of war.

Poverty, hunger, ethnic cleansing, state-sanctioned mass killings and the militarisation of political groups; these are the ingredients for a horrific civil war, where acts such as genocide could rapidly transpire before the international community even considered lifting a finger. 

As the headlines that have dried up, so too have humanitarian aid assistance and the international community’s appetite for a multilateral political solution, or any solution for that matter. Samantha Power, a former journalist who covered atrocities during the Yugoslav Wars and the current United States ambassador to the UN Security Council says Burundi “is going to hell”, and will continue to spiral towards full-blown war due to “no contingency planning, no UN presence [and] no dialogue” on the part of the international community.

Why won’t world governments act to avoid a repeat of 1994? There’s two grim problems: Firstly, as mentioned, most influential news media have stopped paying attention. Social media and the pop-politics clickbait machine are focused on the juicy stories, like the US election-cum-circus or the apparent threat-slash-hype of terrorism in European cities. Maybe Africa doesn’t sell?

Secondly, there are no obvious geopolitical rewards in Burundi to outweigh the risks for world powers. Any solution or intervention would simply be too costly (financially and in terms of political clout and popularity) for those nations with the capabilities to help. At the end of the day, a country’s foreign policy isn’t dictated by liberal values, humanitarian ethics or idealists like Ambassador Power. Instead, policy is motivated by calculations of realpolitik; risk vs. benefit and the almighty ‘national interest’. And so, there is a very real possibility of history repeating itself in the Great Lakes region. Alarm bells are ringing: another Rwanda.

This article first appeared in Issue 8, 2016.
Posted 10:53am Sunday 24th April 2016 by George Elliott.