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In the Shadow of War, Burundi Is on a Knife’s Edge

Only a decade removed from a civil war and genocide that preyed on a Hutu-Tutsi divide, Burundi is once again a nation on edge.
Photo via Thomas Schulze/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Only a decade removed from a civil war and genocide that preyed on a Hutu-Tutsi divide, Burundi is once again a nation on edge.

Perched on the shores of Lake Tanganyika, just south of Rwanda, Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world, and ranks last on the global hunger index. Most Burundians are still farmers, and like in Rwanda, fighting over scarce land has underpinned ethnic tensions since independence.

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Last month, a leaked cable from the UN mission in Burundi (BNUB) reported the ruling Hutu party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), is arming its notorious youth arm with AK-47s and said monitoring of the radio documented calls for the population “to be ready.”

President Pierre Nkurunziza, a Hutu who has been in power since the war ended in 2005, quickly cracked down on local journalists reporting on the leak and kicked the UN’s security chief out of the country.

In April, the UN Security Council released a statement condemning “acts of intimidation, harassment and violence committed by youth groups in Burundi.”

Tensions were further ratcheted this past Thursday when former journalist Alexis Sinduhije, one of the country’s leading opposition figures, was detained in Brussels in connection with a Burundian arrest warrant.

Disturbing echoes of Rwandan genocide emerge in South Sudan. Read more here.

The founder of a popular radio station that tried to bridge ethnic divides, Sinduhije had been on the run since March. That month, following protests in Bujumbura, the government sentenced 21 members of his Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD) to life in prison. The 21 claimed they were jogging together, an illegal activity in Burundi.

It’s not the first time Sinduhije, a Tutsi, has been charged.

After announcing he would run for president in 2010, Sinduhije was locked up for “insulting” Nkurunziza. Those elections were boycotted by the opposition; running unopposed, Nkuruziza won 92 percent of the vote.

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In 2005, Nkuruziza wasn’t even elected by direct vote, instead chosen by parliament.

Now he’s trying to alter power-sharing agreements reached at the 2000 Arusha peace accords and subsequent agreements in order to run for a third term next year.

Burundian Politics

Currently, Tutsis, who make up around 15 percent of the population, are guaranteed 40 percent of parliamentary and government posts. Nkurunziz has pushed to lower the required two-thirds parliamentary majority set out in Arusha for constitutional changes to a simple majority, thereby neutralizing the Tutsi veto.

Unlike the reckoning that took place after the Rwandan genocide, a truth and reconciliation process outlined in Arusha has been neglected in Burundi.

The CNDD-FDD is accused of skirting the spirit of the agreement while neglecting societal wedges such as the way land is distributed.

“Unless the government revives land governance reform in Burundi,long-term peace building efforts will remain compromised,” wrote the independent non-profit Crisis Group in a February report.

Nkuruziza has been particularly harsh on Burundi’s vibrant media community. Last year, the government passed a highly repressive press law that includes exorbitant fines for reporting on the state or impugning the president.

“The country is still very fragile but the ruling party after the civil war feels they are in control and can change the constitution and do more or less what they want,” Thierry Vircoulon, project director for Central Africa at the Crisis Group told VICE News.

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After the 2010 election, some smaller groups, including the more militant Hutu National Liberation Forces (FNL), re-armed. Security forces have pursued the FNL across the Congolese border to their bases in South Kivu. FNL leader Agathon Rwasas, meanwhile, has announced plans to challenge Nkuruziza in elections next year.

But if the suffocating political climate means elections in 2015 are again boycotted, it will send a message to the opposition that political engagement has no benefits. That, says Vircoulon, sets a dangerous precedent.

Burundi’s Bloody History

Burundi’s history is marked by bloodshed. Granted independence in 1962, the country was broken off from Rwanda by its colonial ruler Belgium.

For three decades, the government and military were controlled by the Tutsi minority. A 1972 uprising in the south set off a rarely recounted genocide of over 100,000 mostly-Hutu victims.

In 1993, Melchior Ndadaye, the country’s first Hutu president, was assassinated. A year later, another Hutu president, Cyprien Ntaryamira, died when the plane he was flying in with Rwandan leader Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down over Kigali, the event that would set off Rwanda’s 100 day genocide.

Twenty years after its genocide, Rwanda still has issues. Read more here.

Burundi’s own civil war, which claimed the lives of more than 300,000 — occurred largely in the shadow of its neighbor to the north.

Like most in Burundi’s political class, Nkuruziza is a product of that war.

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The CNDD-FDD transitioned from the strongest Hutu rebel group into a hegemonic political party. It maintained its youth arm, the Imbonerakure, as an enforcement mechanism.

Earlier this year, UN Human Rights Chief Navi Pillay accused the Imbonerakure of violently confronting the opposition on multiple occasions and killing an activist.

The April 3 cable reported the Imbonerakure act “in collusion with the local authorities and with total impunity,” adding “in the countryside they have replaced the law enforcement agencies and act as a militia over and above the police, the army and the judiciary.”

Shortly after it was leaked, the government gave BNUB Security Adviser Paul Dobbie 48 hours to leave Burundi following his “attempt to destabilize” the country.

The mission later announced Dobbie had already left the country, and was assigned elsewhere.

Now, with the UN, the only viable enforcer of Arusha, scheduled to pack up in December, Nkuruziza appears intent on tightening his grip on the media and political opposition.

“They are preparing the ground so that they are unchallenged for the election,” says Vircoulon. “What’s going on in Burundi is the return to authoritarian rule.”