Conditions in Burundi have taken a serious and rapid turn for the worse over the past several weeks, to the point where a total collapse into large-scale violence — maybe even genocide — would not be out of the question.
To recap: Burundi’s President, Pierre Nkurunziza announced back in April that he was planning to stand for reelection to a third term in office. Burundi’s 2005 constitution limits presidents to two terms, so that should have been that. But Nkurunziza argued, and Burundi’s Constitutional Court agreed (though maybe because they had no other choice), that he was eligible for a third because, specifically, the constitution limits presidents to two terms by popular election, and Nkurunziza’s first term had come as the result of a negotiated settlement to the 1993-2005 Burundian Civil War, not as the result of a popular election. Protests followed Nkurunziza’s announcement (and, really, preceded it as well; it’s not like he caught anybody by surprise), then a military coup in May that failed pretty miserably, though the plotters vowed to try again at some undetermined time. In the aftermath of the coup, Nkurunziza cracked down on Burundi’s political opposition hard, calling them “terrorists” in order to whitewash things a bit. People started dying by the dozens and being displaced by the thousands.
To nobody’s surprise, Nkurunziza won his third term, in July, in an election that was marred by fighting and fraud, and that was boycotted by all major opposition parties (and that Nkurunziza may have won, or at least stolen, even if they hadn’t — remember the problem with protests and all). The last time we checked in with the Burundians, in early August, opposition groups had formed a government-in-exile in Ethiopia, but there were also signs that a national unity/reconciliation government might be forming in Bujumbura.
I should have checked in again before now. In my defense, it’s just me around this place, and there’s a lot of terrible news to cover.
Last week, Paul Kagame, the President of Rwanda (and somebody who may be encountering his own third-term problems soon) accused Nkurunziza of slaughtering his own citizens after a weekend that saw 11 more Burundians killed by security forces. The death toll at the hands of Burundi’s security forces since Nkurunziza announced his plan to run again in April stands at somewhere around 200. About 100 of those have been killed just since August, a disturbing sign that the crisis is escalating in the post-election period. Nkurunziza had given his opposition until last Sunday to surrender their weapons and stop protesting, and that doesn’t seem to have happened.
So OK, that all sounds generally horrible, right? But things could get a whole lot worse. Burundi, like its neighbor Rwanda, is built on the very tenuous and periodically very violent relationship between the Hutu and Tutsi. The 1994 Rwandan Genocide is the thing that comes to mind when most reasonably knowledgeable people hear of the Hutu and Tutsi, and that’s understandable — maybe a million people died in that event. But Burundi has endured two genocides in the past half-century: one in 1972, when the ruling Tutsi killed somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 Hutu, and one in 1993, when the ruling Hutu killed around 25,000 Tutsi as part of the overall explosion of violence that produced the Rwandan Genocide and the 1993-2005 Burundian Civil War.
This is an ever-combustible situation that could explode into something horrific with only a nudge. And, hey, not to alarm anybody, but it just so happens that at least one of Burundi’s Hutu leaders is using language with respect to dealing with protesters that would sound awfully familiar to anybody who lived through Rwanda in 1994:
Several analysts and human right groups expressed outrage after the president of the Burundian senate, Révérien Ndikuriyo, called for authorities in the districts of the capital Bujumbura to start the “work” earlier in November.
Ndikuriyo made the remarks during a speech he delivered in Kirundi, the country’s national language, in which he used the word “kora”, which means “work” or “start work”. This is the same code-word used in Rwanda to incite people to kill Tutsis in 1994.
Referring to a 7 November deadline given by President Pierre Nkurunziza calling on people to hand in illegal firearms, Ndikuriyo warned that those who refused to give up weapons would be “sprayed like cockroaches”.
Similar to the rhetoric spread in Rwanda to incite people to kill, Ndikuriyo also told the so-called “heads of the districts” that nothing would happen to them and, if they abided by the government’s instructions, they would be rewarded with the properties belonging to the “traitors”. He also used expressions such as “pulverise and exterminate” opponents who he said are “good only for dying”.
If this violence does take a sharp ethnic turn, you can expect Kagame, a Tutsi, to act to protect that community in Burundi, which could mean civil war in Rwanda again, and so you could potentially be looking at two nations at war both internally and with each other.
On the other hand, at The Washington Post’s “Monkey Cage” blog, scholars have argued that what’s happening in Burundi doesn’t meet the definition of genocide; rather, this is a case of mass political violence undertaken by a state against its citizens — crimes against humanity, for sure, but without an ethnic component. We should avoid mislabeling it as “genocide,” they write, for several reasons:
The distinction matters. Why? Most immediately, clarity about who is at risk of being attacked, and why, is crucial for protection efforts. When threatened atrocities are ethnic in nature, creating humanitarian safe-zones or policing disputed areas may reduce risk. But when violence is based on political allegiance, such interventions are not likely to save lives. Similarly, targeted sanctions against leadership may be useful in discouraging top-down violence, but are unlikely to help when the cause has already been taken up at the grassroots level.
Inaccurate understandings of what’s happening on the ground lead to poorly tailored prevention efforts. And the rush to be seen doing something, anything, to prevent genocide will only exacerbate this issue. In fact, we saw this in Rwanda in 1994, when an ill-designed French intervention to establish “safe areas” was welcomed by the international community. It ultimately facilitated the escape of key Hutu extremist members of the government — a longtime French ally — and arguably prolonged the violence.
Further down the line, misclassifying potential violence in Burundi as genocidal has implications for future crises. There is no hierarchy of crimes in international law. Violence that does not meet the technical, legal criteria for “genocide” may actually be more widespread and severe. That’s because what makes violence genocidal is the motive, not the scale or brutality of the crimes. But popular understandings of genocide as the “ultimate crime” generate obvious incentives for victims and their advocates to invoke the “G word” to rally support for intervention, even when the objective criteria for genocide are not met. Indeed, members of the political opposition in Burundi began invoking the risk of genocide as early as February 2014.
Whether it meets the definition of genocide or not, what’s happening in Burundi is already bad and looks like it may be getting much, much worse. I realize there’s no ISIS involved here, but it still matters.
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