Could Trouble in Burundi Take Down the Whole Region?

Nine months after President Pierre Nkurunziza upended Burundi’s fragile post-conflict peace by announcing he would stand for a third term in office, all indications are the crisis is getting worse rather than better. New evidence of sexual assault by security forces and growing allegations of mass killings coupled with the staunch unwillingness by Nkurunziza’s government to participate in regional talks aimed at resolving the crisis are leaving many to wonder how bad things will get.

At stake is not just peace and stability in Burundi, but potentially the entire Great Lakes region as developments in Burundi threaten to create a domino effect in neighboring countries.

With such high stakes, pressure is growing on domestic, regional and international stakeholders to find a solution. Yesterday the UN high commissioner of human rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein urged further independent investigation into the growing violence. In December, coordinated attacks by rebel groups on three military bases in the capital area resulted in widespread raids by security forces; according to the International Federation for Human Rights the attacks and raids left at least 154 people dead, 150 more missing and countless arrests over the course of just two days. In particular, the rise in enforced disappearances is causing renewed concern as new allegations of at least nine mass graves add to the warning signs that Burundi is on the verge of re-entering civil war.

“Despite these allegations of large-scale arrests, my Office is finding that only a small proportion of them appear to be in official places of detention,” said the High Commissioner. “The increasing number of enforced disappearances, coupled with allegations of secret detention facilities and mass graves is extremely alarming.”

The possibility that the killing is beyond what is already publicly known is especially concerning given Burundi’s history. Much like its northern neighbor Rwanda, politics in Burundi often falls on ethnic lines which has led to decades of war and two genocides since gaining independence in 1962. For now the current crisis still appears to be following well established political loyalties, but opposition leaders point to the use of incendiary language reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide in 1994 to illustrate the threat that what started as a constitutional crisis could become something far worse if a resolution is not found soon.

A new refugee crisis?

Many Burundians appear to agree. Since the crisis started in April 2015, more than 230,000 Burundians have fled the country, mostly to neighboring Tanzania which is struggling to care for the new arrivals. Most of the refugees in Tanzania wind up at the Nyarugusu camp, the second largest refugee camp in Africa. Established in 1996 to house Congolese civilians fleeing the civil war in that country, the camp is designed to hold an estimated 50,000 refugees. However by the end of 2015, there were an estimated 160,000 people calling the camp home following a huge surge in the arrival of Burundians.

As a result, Tanzania is re-opening other camps to deal with the overflow. Nduta refugee camp in northwest Tanzania used to house mainly Burundian refugees who fled the country’s civil war in the 1990s, but closed in 2008 after peace returned to Burundi following extensive peace talks in 2005. The Tanzanian government is also re-opening the Mtendeli refugee camp, which has also been closed for years. The planned resettlement of 50,000 Burundian refugees to these new camps will help with the growing numbers, but will still leave Nyarugusu camp at twice its designed capacity.

The rapid influx of refugees from Burundi does not look like it will slow down any time soon. Many Burundians have spent decades in refugee camps waiting for stability to return to their troubled country. Yet just as it seemed that the peace that appeared so elusive since war broke out in the 1972 finally arrived, the current situation suggests that the stability that came with the 2005 peace accord was merely a lull in Burundi’s history of displacement.

Regional contagion and “Third Term-ism”

Nkurunziza’s decision to contravene the Burundian constitution and seek a third term comes at a time when other long standing rulers in the region are considering the same. Next door in the DRC, many observer suspect President Joseph Kabila’s recent stalling on holding elections as required in 2016 is his attempt to thwart the constitutional prohibition against a third term while Rwanda amended its constitution in January to allow for President Paul Kagame to run for a third term in 2017.

The resurgence of “third term-ism” is not unique to the Great Lakes region, but Burundi’s move last April raised more alarm bells than usual given the region’s history of conflict. As seen throughout the 1990s with civil wars in Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC, serious crises in the Great Lakes rarely stay confined to domestic borders. The ability of the instability and violence in Burundi to spill over into neighboring countries raises the stakes in a region where ethnic tensions and political strife have a strong history of evolving into genocide.

Unfortunately, Nkurunziza appears to disagree with how serious the situation is. Following an announcement last month by the African Union that it planned to send 5,000 troops to the country as a peacekeeping force, Nkurunziza stated the Burundian military would fight the peacekeepers if they attempted to violate the country’s borders. Attempts to hold peace talks in Tanzania earlier this month failed and have been postponed indefinitely after the Burundian government announced that it would not participate. With no cooperation from Nkurunziza, regional and international policymakers are at a loss of how to proceed even as it becomes clear that failing to act early may result in a return to war and genocide.

Looking for a way forward

With all regional attempts to stem the crisis stalled, the UN Security Council is scheduled to visit Burundi next week to urge Nkurunziza to come back to the mediation table. It is the latest diplomatic push by the Council after unanimously passing Resolution 2248 in November that warned of additional measures against Burundi if the violence did not stop. Yet two months later, that warning appears to be falling on deaf ears as the government digs in and becomes even more intransigent.

In the 1990s, the UN took great pains to try and learn from its failings during the Rwandan genocide in order to prevent such a mass atrocity from happening again. More than two decades later, the crisis in Burundi may provide the international community with the opportunity to get things right, but with no end to the crisis in sight, it may also be that Burundi is bound to repeat its own bloody history as the rest of the world watches from the sidelines.