Burundi Is Burning
A country with a bloody history of ethnic conflict risks descending into chaos again
AT THE NYARUGUSU refugee camp on Tanzania’s western border, Faith Umukunzi sits on a stone with her baby safe and comfortable in her arms and talks on her cellphone with her husband. She hasn’t seen him for five months. “My husband says his life is in danger,” says the mother of five after ending the call. “They want to kill him for supporting the opposition party. He has been hiding since the coup, and he can’t travel to this camp. I know they will kill him.”
Umukunzi and her children are among around 110,000 Burundian refugees who have fled to neighboring Tanzania since April, when Burundi descended into violence after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he was running for a third term. After a failed coup in May, Nkurunziza was re-elected in July, but tensions have remained high.
Umukunzi, who lived in Rumonge province in southwest Burundi on the shores of the massive Lake Tanganyika, says she fled her home after pro-government militias asked her to surrender her two sons to help them fight rebels opposed to Nkurunziza. Her husband remained behind to join the struggle against the president. “It was a risky journey,” she says. “I had to travel for four days to save my children from being murdered by members of the ruling party. My family was the next target after our close neighbors were shot by men in police uniform. I saw very many people being killed.”
The violence stems from a controversy over whether Nkurunziza was eligible to stand for a third five-year term. The constitution states that the president of Burundi cannot run for office more than twice. But Nkurunziza claims the parliament, rather than voters, elected him to his first term in 2005—he was the first president under the new constitution—so, he argued, he had campaigned to the electorate only once before.
His decision sparked fury. Many Burundians were deeply unhappy about the president’s track record. His power grab was an excuse to vent their frustrations, says Devon Curtis, a political scientist at Cambridge University in Britain who studies Africa’s Great Lakes region. While Burundi’s gross domestic product is slated to grow by 5 percent next year, the average citizen can expect to see a decline in wages due to inflation, according to African Economic Outlook.
“His opponents really rallied around this question of the third term, [but] the issues run much deeper,” says Curtis. “It was about corruption of the government. It was about dissatisfaction with standards of living and the fact that the economy wasn’t growing quickly enough and that the benefits were going to a relatively small number of people.”
In May, General Godefroid Niyombare launched a failed coup against Nkurunziza, after which the president intensified his persecution of opponents, and they stepped up their resistance
in turn. Nkurunziza won the election in July and then led a crackdown on opponents that resulted in numerous deaths.
In December, 79 opposition fighters and eight government soldiers died during coordinated rebel attacks on three Burundian military bases, an army spokesman said. The week before, scores of people died in clashes at military installations. Police spokesman Pierre Nkurikiye condemned what he called “several armed criminal attacks.”
International alarm has been mounting over rhetoric from Nkurunziza’s supporters that has grown increasingly poisonous—drawing comparisons to the hate speech that whipped up the genocidal violence in Rwanda in the 1990s. That’s worrying because Burundi has also experienced genocide. A civil war between 1993 and 2005 pitted rebels from the Hutu majority against an army dominated by minority Tutsis. At least 300,000 people died in the conflict, which started a year before the genocide of mainly Tutsi people in neighboring Rwanda.
Fears of new mass killings are motivating people to flee Burundi, but so far the violence hasn’t risen to a level that would obligate the international community to intervene, says Curtis. “At the moment, it isn’t fair to describe events as genocide,” she says. “It’s political violence, and it’s violence concentrated in particular neighborhoods. I think it would be a mistake to call this genocide, in that people are not being targeted for their ethnic affiliation at the moment.”
After the December attacks on military bases, U.N. high commissioner for human rights (UNHCR) spokeswoman Cecile Pouilly said government security forces conducted intensive house searches in response, arresting hundreds of young men and allegedly summarily executing some of them. According to The New York Times, government forces retaliated by conducting attacks that mostly targeted Tutsis, raising fears that the violence was becoming increasingly sectarian.
The U.N. estimates 340 people have been killed since April, including about 100 in