“I am full of despair. I have no hope. No expectation for life.”
These are the words of Domine Ndabazaniye, as recorded by journalist Amanda Sperber. Ndabazaniye fled her home after her husband was killed, her daughter was raped, and her country was overrun by war. Ndabazaniye, however, is a refugee not from Syria or Libya, but from the often-overlooked East African nation of Burundi.
Unfortunately, situations like Ndabazaniye’s have become the norm, rather than the exception, in Burundi. Since President Pierre Nkurunziza claimed a contentious third term in April 2015, civil conflict between opposition groups, civilians, and the government has run rampant throughout the country. Today, the conflict shows no signs of improving. Bordering nations report receiving 420,689 Burundian refugees, and an additional 55,293 people have been internally displaced within Burundi.
With Nkurunziza indicating that he will run for office again in 2020—possibly setting himself up for another 14 years in power—opposition forces and civilians are bracing themselves for renewed violent conflict. Yet, governing bodies and civilians worldwide have effectively ignored this devastating civil war. In order to establish peace, the international community must rethink its response to Nkurunziza.
A Resurgence of Insurgence
Civil war in Burundi is not a new concept. As is the case in Rwanda, Burundi is heavily divided along ethnic lines, particularly between Hutus and Tutsis. Accentuated by a history of discrimination and socioeconomic disparities, these divisions have caused Burundi to experience multiple massacres since gaining its independence in 1962, along with a decade-long civil war starting in 1993 that killed 300,000 people. After that civil war ended with the Arusha Accords of the early 2000s, Burundi has experienced a fragile peace.
The current ruling party of Burundi, The National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy, is a Hutu rebel group that does not fully recognize the Arusha Accords and has been slowly consolidating its power over the country and eroding constitutional protections. For example, it passed laws in 2013 to restrict freedom of the press. Burundi’s cabinet has also recently backed a constitutional change that would remove the two-term limit on a president’s rule, extending Nkurunziza’s authority significantly. In addition, Burundi just became the first nation to exit the International Criminal Court, diminishing the power of the international community to hold its government accountable for human rights violations. The pretense of peaceful democracy is a mirage. Fraud accusations and grenade attacks mired the 2010 election, and led to an opposition boycott.
This political conflict has not been without consequences. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled out of fear of persecution, and malaria and cholera run rampant throughout the country. Investigators from the United Nations have accused Nkurunziza of crimes against humanity for his regime’s role in kidnappings, torture, and rape. To best protect the basic human rights of thousands at risk, the crisis in Burundi must end.
International Community Disunity
The international response to the Burundian crisis has been tepid at best. Although the African Union recommended deploying 5,000 peacekeepers in December of 2015, it has since withdrawn this recommendation. The U.N. Security Council also authorized sending 288 police officers to regulate the situation, but never followed through after Burundi’s government rejected the measures. The largest response has been E.U. sanctions against Burundi, which have had little effect.
To mitigate the crisis in Burundi, the international community has varied options for cooperating in a coherent response. First, the United Nations may enact targeted sanctions, send political negotiators, or deploy a police force. Similarly, the African Union might militarily intervene and attempt to force Nkurunziza into negotiations—an option that previously failed when African leaders did not endorse the mission. The African Union can also cease cooperation with Burundi’s military in order to decrease Burundi’s influence in its internal politics. Finally, NGOs or intergovernmental organizations can directly provide aid without funneling it through a Burundian governing body to improve the effectiveness of humanitarian assistance.
Yet, none of these actions are guaranteed to succeed. It is difficult to envision a peaceful Burundi with Nkurunziza still in power, and aggressive military action may provoke an equally dangerous backlash. A dictator who actively suppresses opposition, manipulates the constitution to his benefit, and has already survived a coup attempt is unlikely to behave himself in a multiparty democracy.
However, another coup may be exactly what Burundi needs. The Washington Post rates Burundi as one of countries most likely to have a coup in 2017, due to historical precedent and current political instability. Such a coup could actually be a “good coup”—one that promotes long-term democracy and establishes lasting security.
It would be unwise for the international community to deliberately provoke such a drastic action. Instead, the rest of the world might simply allow a coup to happen, perhaps encouraging it by relaxing its current condemnation of coups. By letting a coup remove Nkurunziza from power, the international community could then step into the resulting power vacuum, aiding negotiations in order to foster peace.
There is no clear-cut path forward in Burundi. If the international community truly wishes to curtail the conflict, it must get creative. For his part, Nkurunziza certainly has.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons/World Economic Forum/Eric Miller