17 June 2016: The last 12 months have seen a political storm spiral out of control in Burundi. Our Burundi Peacebuilding Expert describes a year of mounting violence.

bujumbura The Burundian capital Bujumbura has seen serious violence over the last year. Photo credit: thanks to Igor Rugwiza.

Faced with this terrifying situation, a quarter of a million people have fled
The situation in Burundi is a terrible example of what can happen when politics goes wrong.

A year-long crisis has seen violence and alarming human right violations across the country, which is much worse than most people realise. The total number of fatalities is often reported as being around 450, but detailed analysis indicates that at least 1,000 have been killed. More than 250,000 people have fled the country.

Why has this happened? The immediate trigger was the decision by President Pierre Nkurunziza, who had already served two terms in office, to stand for a third term in the July 2015 elections. He had previously spent 2005-2010 and then 2010-2015 as head of state. Nkurunziza argued that because he was nominated by Parliament the first time round, it did not count. Burundi’s constitutional court, allegedly under duress, agreed with him, but many others did not – and took to the streets to demonstrate.

A year of violence

The government clamped down hard on the protestors, and the situation deteriorated after a failed coup d’état in May 2015. Since then, Burundi has seen waves of violence targeting ordinary citizens and security forces across the country, not least in the capital, Bujumbura.

Residents in the so-called ‘dissenting districts’– where many of last year’s protestors live – have seen dozens of people disappear overnight. If they reappear at all, it is often as corpses in the streets. Many have clearly been tortured, and some have been executed. Across Burundi, hundreds are missing, and towns and villages are reeling from grenade attacks, kidnappings, and intimidation by armed groups.

Faced with this terrifying situation, and in the context of a country whose civil war ended only a decade ago, a quarter of a million people have fled to neighbouring countries, causing a refugee crisis for which the UN does not have enough money and is struggling to raise more. This is a huge number in a region which is still recovering from multiple armed conflicts.

Information blackout

Despite warnings, Burundians are refusing to turn on each other
In terms of civil society, it has been very difficult. Independent media were attacked in the wake of the coup attempt, with several independent radio stations burnt down. Journalists and civil society leaders have fled. Some civil society organisations working on human rights monitoring, governance and democracy have been suspended, and seen their bank accounts frozen.

Such organisations, as well as trades unions and other civil society groups that are still operating inside the country, do so at serious personal and professional risk. This virtual information blackout makes it hard for Burundians to hear about what is going on in their own country, which makes it easier for politicians and other elite members of society to try and manipulate factors such as ethnicity to support their cause.

Fortunately, despite many outside observers warning that the situation threatens to disintegrate into ethnic or other identity-based conflict, Burundians are persistently refusing to turn on each other. This includes, in particular, the Army, whose integration across ethnic lines was one of the undoubted success stories of the Arusha Accords, the peace deal which ended the civil war.

There is extremely worrying information that the Army’s unity is fracturing, with targeted attacks on – and desertion by – senior officers. But so far, the Army has held firm, and retained the trust of the Burundian people as a neutral force in politics. It is vital that this should continue.

However, the lack of information is a big problem. It is helping to polarise positions, with people either being “for” or against” Nkurunziza’s third term. And this in turn makes it very difficult to get anyone around a negotiating table, as the government has announced that it won’t engage in talks with the radical opposition part of the Conseil National pour le respect de l'Accord d'Arusha pour la Paix et la Réconciliation au Burundi et de l'Etat de Droit (CNARED). This is a group which aims to uphold the Arusha Accords, but which the government calls a ‘terrorist’ organisation. With almost no negotiating space even to talk about alternative political futures for Burundi, the status quo prevails. And while that happens, people continue to die.

Where next?

But all is not lost. As mentioned, ordinary Burundians do not want this conflict – that is why so many have left. One day, they will return, and rebuild. For that to happen, someone, somehow, needs to get all parties to enter a dialogue, without preconditions or an agenda, beyond discussing all the issues linked to the crisis.

The momentum for such talks has swung back and forth but no one has yet managed to get senior representatives from the government, opposition political parties, civil society and all other relevant stakeholders to be in the same place at the same time, and to stay there.

Doing so would be a first step to restoring hope that Burundi can build on the progress made since the end of the war in 2005. And that’s where the regional facilitators are focusing efforts, hoping to get these talks resumed later this month.

This article was first published in Peace Direct's report on third-term presidents in Africa. To view the whole report, see: Will they, won’t they? Africa’s third-term presidents 


Nduwarugira Oscar on June 17, 2016, 2:09 p.m.

I fear this is a political opinion rather than an alysis of a peacebuilding expert!And I think the big question in Burundi is why do we have one story but many narratives?I was expecting the expert to talk about the imaturity of Burundian politicians, the impact of gaps in the Arusha Accords,the polarization of Burundian society,the regional and international implication in the crisis,etc.But reading his report he is not from political or civil society alarmist,but of course trying to push an unspoken agenda!Infact the Burundi in media is totally different from the on the ground!In conclusion,I think the caracteristic of a peacbuilder is that continous struggle to try to stay balanced between the conflicting parties and this make himor her avoid propagating alarming and vague informations for which he/she has no proof!

Lekaken on June 18, 2016, 4:57 a.m.

Most of the African countries proness to political violence is due to its imaturity in handling political matters. The lust for power which resambles wealth accumulation in abundace.I pray God that we may embrace Western culture politics / democritization.

Nduwarugira Oscar on June 18, 2016, 3:04 p.m.

In Africa,political imaturity affects those in power and those in opposition.In the name of defending people politicians sacrifice others,using them as shields or stepping stones towards their personal gains!And most conflicts in Africa are identity based though in the appearance they look like political. So,it is beyond money and in most cases it is about tribal ,ethnic, religiuos or regional survival !That is why most conflicts in Africa are complex and moslutions need to be also complexe! Again I am not a fan of the western culture politics or democratization.This is because in all the mess in Africa there is always an invisible hand from the west!Wars in Africa benefit them because it is an opportunity to sell arms and to exploits african resources!But we should not keep blaming the west alone because we africans build bridges for them and we host them! The matter is even bigger now because the East is joining the game and I wonder what finally Africa will be in 20 years to come if China and Russia continue their African conquest as they have alread begun! Even if people do not want to talk about it the crisis in Burundi is more than an internal political problem.We all know that the West has been supporting the opposition while Russia and China are on the government side!As the East tries to exetend their control to Africa the west is trying to resist giving up the supremacy they have been enjoying for many decades.In all this,masses are victims because when politicians start their dirty game of fighting masses are to bear all consequences !However I must say that there is a lot we can learn from the west in regards to national leadership.Leadership should not be a source of income as it is now for many African leaders.A leader is there to serve not to be served!The need to lead should be for self actualisation but not for self gratification! Finally,africans need to know that conflicts are normal in life but the solution to these conflicts should never take people's life!In fact any solution which kills life is always wrong because violence always breeds violence!Therefore as we think of changing our political situations we should also think and work towards breaking the cycle of violence!

Yohani on June 19, 2016, 10:20 a.m.

The picture posted does not match the situation on June 17,2016. You need to match your narrative and the posted image.Your "Burundi Peacebuilding Expert" needs to tell you what is happening right now in Burundi. Some Burundians are naturally violent and want the country to stay so. I was expecting your "Burundi Peacebuilding Expert" to share his (her) tentative of solution instead of actualizing the last year scenes of violence. Thank you

Nduwarugira Oscar on June 19, 2016, 12:43 p.m.

Hello Yohani.I guess you are a burundian,so do I.I totally agree with you except when you say that some Burundians are naturally violent and want the country to stay so.Here I totally desagree with you because nobody is naturally violent.Instead people become violent because of various reasons! Therefore we must apprecaite that when a conflict escalates it is going to hurt people and hurting people always hurt others!People are not violent because they love to but circumstances put them in that situation.That is why we find violence from both sides,the government and the opposition!Politically speaking,Burundi is at win-loose or loose-loose stage in resolving the crisis.The common thing here is violence!In other words there are still a lot of similarities between last years and today!May be the form changed but the depth is still the same!

Yohani on June 21, 2016, 2:13 p.m.

One chooses to be violent or peaceful and Shakespeare emphasized this when he said: "To be or not to be - that is the question" Hurt people hurt people and if damaged emotions are not healed, the pain of such emotions is (naturally)present with people even though the incidents and relationships that caused the hurt may be long past. Thank you

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