Burundi is on the Verge of Genocide and There’s Not Much That Can Stop It

Before she was the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power was a journalist who wrote about genocide and mass atrocities from the Balkans to Darfur. Her Pulitzer Prize winning book: ‘A Problem from Hell:’ America in the Age of Genocide is the most authoritative exploration of genocide in the 21st century.

So when she makes statements like this about trouble in Burundi, and invokes the genocide in neighboring Rwanda twenty years ago, it’s behooves us to pay attention.

We are deeply concerned by President Nkurunziza’s speech of November 2nd, in which he pledged to use violent methods to have security forces search homes for weapons and opposition figures within five days. The continued sowing of a climate of fear and tension through such language and the use of such measures only prolongs and deepens Burundi’s political and security crisis. The United States expresses its extreme concern that the five-day ultimatum issued by the President will trigger widespread violence beginning this coming weekend.

We are also deeply disturbed by reports that incendiary and divisive speech is being used by other government officials. The President of the Burundian Senate, Révérien Ndikuriyo, has reportedly invoked the language of horrors the region hasn’t witnessed in 20 years. Whether in Kirundi or English, this language is terrifying: “You tell those who want to execute the mission: on this issue, you have to pulverize, you have to exterminate – these people are only good for dying. I give you this order, go!”

At issue is a deteriorating situation in Burundi which ultimately stemms from President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision last Spring to seek an extra-constitutional third term in office. That led to protests, which lead to a brief coup. The coup was eventually suppressed, but protests continued.

Last week, Nkurunziza issued an ultimatum giving the protestors seven days to lay down arms. His political ally warned that the police would soon go to “work” against “criminal elements,” which was an unambiguous euphemism meant to invoke the slaughter of ethnic Tutsi’s in neighboring Rwanda 20 years ago.

“Today, the police shoot in the legs,” said Burundi’s senate president. “But when the day comes that we tell them to go to ‘work’, do not come crying to us,” said the president of Burundi’s Senate.

So far, it looks like they are beginning to follow through on that threat. This weekend, 9 people were killed execution style in a bar and there have been reports of several targeted assassinations. In all, about 200,000 people have fled the country since the start of the trouble.

Yesterday, the Security Council met in an emergency session in which France offered up a resolution to tighten sanctions against Burundian officials who are obstructing peace and fanning the flames of genocide.  The problem is, Nkurunziza has so far proven to not be swayed by threats of international isolation. He has been seemingly impervious to even more intense punitive measures.  Western countries have cut off aid, including the USA which excluded Burundi from a valuable trade deal known as the African Growth and Opportunity Act. These measures have apparently not changed his calculus, despite the fact that western aid makes up about half of Burundi’s budget. Warnings from the African Union and neighboring countries like Rwanda and Uganda have also apparently fallen on deaf ears

The sad fact is, the international community’s means of compellence are extremely limited. Nkurunziza seems intent on carrying out a mass atrocity; and he seems to care less what the rest of the world thinks.


If you have 15 minutes and want a deeper understanding of the roots of this conflict, including the Nkurinziza’s bizarre personal story, listen to my interview with journalist Jonathan Rozen published in May.  Click here to listen later.