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Violence Spreads in Burundi as Rwanda Warns of Genocide Risks

Just days after the high profile killing of the son of a prominent Burundian human rights activist, Rawanda's President Paul Kagame urged Burundi to avoid reverting to the ethnic violence that engulfed both countries in the 1990s.
Photo par Mike Hutchings/Reuters

The government of Burundi is hitting back at the president of neighboring Rwanda, Paul Kagame, after he called out his Burundian counterpart Pierre Nkurunziza and warned of genocide risks across the border. The latest exchange of words comes as an escalation in violence in Burundi raises concerns that those risks may be about to turn the crisis into massive-scale violence. Unrest began in April, sparked by Nkurunziza's decision to seek a third term in office by changing the constitution.


Just days after the high-profile killing of the son of a prominent Burundian human rights activist, Kagame gave a speech over the weekend urging Burundi to avoid reverting to the ethnic violence that engulfed both countries in the 1990s, saying his southern neighbor should have "learned the lesson of our history."

Burundi's presidential media advisor told Reuters Monday that Kagame's comments were "indecent and unfair."

Kagame's comments come after months of speculation over whether the Rwandan leader might intervene more seriously in the unfolding crisis across the border. While Rwanda has not publicly thrown material support behind any rebel movements in Burundi, Nkurunziza's regime has raised concern about such a development falling along ethnic lines. Notably, Kagame chose to make his weekend speech in Kinyarwanda, a regional language, instead of English, likely seeking to send a stern message across the border.

A majority of the people in Burundi, including Nkurunziza, are ethnic Hutu, with ethnic Tutsis making up just 14 percent of the population. During the Rwandan genocide in 1994, the Hutu majority in that country killed 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Hutu-Tutsi tensions in Burundi also sparked a civil war, which lasted from 1993 until a peace agreement took hold in 2005. Most observers have been cautious not to emphasize the role of ethnic divisions in Burundi's current crisis, but concerns over the underlying divisions still loom. Both Kagame and Nkurunziza gained notoriety as rebel leaders during the 1990s before ultimately assuming government positions as the conflicts came to a close.


In addition to criticizing Kagame's, the Burundian media advisor, Willi Nyamitwe, also highlighted the alleged success of the forced arms collection process the government instigated last week. The government set a November 7 deadline for people to give up their weapons and avoid being considered criminals.

"The government is now collecting all the guns because the president has given a deadline … Everything is going peacefully," Nyamitwe said, asserting that there was no violence while the process was underway.

After the 51-year-old president revealed plans to run again, critics argued the move was illegal due to the two-term limit outlined in the country's constitution, which was established in 2005 after the civil war. The nation's high court, however, ultimately cleared Nkruniziza to run, determining that it was legal because he had been appointed to his first term rather than democratically elected.

The successful re-election campaign sparked clashes in the streets of Bujumbura between Nkurunziza's opponents and supporters, with violent crackdowns against demonstrators carried out by a police force largely loyal to the president. More than 150,000 Burundians have fled to Rwanda, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and other neighboring states.

On Friday, Welly Nzitonda turned up dead just hours after being detained by authorities, with his body discovered in Bujumbura's Mutakura neighborhood. Nzitonda was the son of human rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa and just one of a number of political assassination victims in Burundi since the July elections. Mbonimpa's son-in-law was murdered in October and gunmen attempted to kill the activist himself back in August.


Following Nzitonda's death, the United States Department of State issued a statement expressing grave concern over the political and security situation in Burundi, saying it was ready to offer support to any dialogue aimed at tackling the crisis.

"Nzitonda's killing is the latest in a cycle of violence between government security forces, armed opposition groups, and criminal gangs," the statement read. "We are particularly concerned that inflammatory rhetoric deployed in recent days by some government officials and President Nkurunziza's planned security crackdown this weekend are increasing the risk of an outbreak of mass violence in Burundi."

Violence continued through the weekend in the midst of the government's arms-collecting activities, with an attack on Saturday night carried out by gunmen at a bar in Bujumbura's Kanyosha neighborhood that left nine people dead.

The Kanyosha attack signals a spreading of violence in the capital, with the neighborhood — a stronghold for the rebel group FNL — coming under fire for the first time since the crisis began, according to Cara Jones, a Burundi expert and political science professor at Mary Baldwin College. Until now, violence had centered around opposition strongholds like Cibitoke and Mutakura, with many of the residents in these areas involved in the early protests.

"A lot of people are worried that this is a clear indication of the spreading of violence," Jones said. "[This is] something very different and very concerning."


On Monday morning, local reports indicated another three dead bodies were found in Bujumbura. The discovery of dead bodies on the streets of the capital has evolved into almost a daily occurrence, with more than 200 people killed in recent months.

"It's a continuation of a very worrying trend," Jones said "Everything is just sort of all coming to a terrible boiling point."

Armed groups are also emerging, Jones said, with unclear allegiances to the opposition, and are starting to fight back against the regime as tit-for-tat attacks increase. While imposing sanctions is a tactic experts like Jones are advocating for, she did acknowledge the risk these actions could have in alienating Nkurunziza and backing his government into a corner.

"You want to both punish but not alienate the Burundian government," she said. "You don't want to push everyone else out into kind of a position of no return. It looks like that's where we're going."

Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB