Warning signs, grimly reminiscent of previous episodes of genocide, are appearing across Burundi. This tiny nation, nestled within the green hills of equatorial Africa, has hosted disproportionate rates of ethnic violence in the decades since independence. Shortly before its neighbor to the north, Rwanda, collapsed into one of the worst genocides in history, Burundi underwent an incident of ethnic violence directed mostly at civilians. While this was precipitated by the 1993 assassination of former president Ndadaye, it wasn’t Burundi’s first instance of genocide. In 1972, just ten years following Burundian independence, the Tutsi-led army orchestrated mass killings against the Hutu majority populace, resulting in likely over 200,000 deaths. Immediately following these attacks, Hutu rebels initiated counter-killings, taking tens of thousands of lives in turn.
Measures have since been implemented to prevent future spirals into chaos, such as ethnic quotas in government positions. However, the nation’s peace is perpetually in a fragile state. This fragility has been increasingly tested since April 2015. That month, incumbent president Pierre Nkurunziza (of mixed Hutu-Tutsi parentage) announced he would seek a third presidential term. This decision was perceived by many to violate the constitution’s two-term limit imposed on the president. Nkurunziza defended his actions, asserting that his first five-year term could not be counted, because the parliament, not the people, elected him as a post-war measure. A brief coup in May shook Nkurunziza’s grip on power, albeit briefly. Loyalists quickly staged a counter-coup and regained control, but not without a complete media shutdown and an exodus of over 100,000 Burundians. Nkurunziza’s candidacy went to the polls in July that year, earning him his sought-after third term, but generating ample violence in the weeks before and after the election.
These tensions reached a tipping point in December. The nation’s capital, Bujumbura, was rocked by a series of coordinated attacks against military personnel, carried out by a joint Hutu-Tutsi opposition. The government responded with excessive violence, initiating door-to-door abductions and murders. The Republican Forces of Burundi, a rebel movement officially dedicated to ousting the president was formed soon after. Concerned with the escalating violence, the African Union offered to mobilize a peacekeeping mission. However, the Burundian government immediately rejected this plan, asserting that any such force would be treated as a hostile enemy.
Months later, the situation has not improved. Burundi has devolved into a police state, with frequent nighttime patrols from security personnel willing to act on the slightest suspicion. Although Burundi’s fractures do not perfectly align with ethnic divisions, Tutsis have been disproportionately targeted in this crackdown. Last month, the government declared sweeping forced retirements for Tutsi members of the military. There is also unnerving similarity among the public rhetoric to that which preceded Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. The President of the Senate has gone on radio to call for the nation to “go to work” by “spraying cockroaches with bullets.” Evidence has even surfaced indicating that those in power are conspiring with groups tied to the Hutu
of Rwanda who are currently in exile in the DR Congo.
Amid all this turmoil, the population is falling into economic despair. GDP has declined 7% since last year and mass starvation is on the rise. Citizens are unable to go about their daily routine due to the harsh security measures, driving the nation’s infrastructure to a screeching halt. The Burundian government, unwilling to engage in peace talks, will no longer receive money from the European Union. This move will undoubtedly further cripple the already suffering populace. It is quickly becoming clear that the country will have no hope for recovery as long as Nkurunziza remains in power.