In Breaking Burundi Part I, I gave a quick introduction to the developing conflict in Burundi. In Part II, I’ll go into how it developed and the current state of the crisis.
How it began
The current conflict started in April 2015, when Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he would attempt to extend his stay in office for a third term. Protests formed to oppose Nkurunziza’s resolution, and the government responded with violent crackdowns. There was a failed coup attempt. To date, the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (“ACLED”) estimates that 1,155 people have been killed, 690 of which have been civilians.
The Quest for a Third Term
Why did Nkurunziza seek a third term? It’s part of a wider, worrying trend in Africa of leaders attempting to override constitutional limitations to remain in power longer. Following the exit of colonial powers, African countries were left with a deficit of stable institutions. Power vacuums were filled with dictators like Mobutu Sese Seko in Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) who established clientalist or cronyist states to maintain control.
Mobutu’s fall in 1997 during the first Congolese Civil War was looked on hopefully by the West. Leaders were coming to power that promised democratic reform, who claimed that they would encourage rather than repress public spheres. It is these very leaders - like Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, or Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni - who are now claiming the need to remain a third term for the sake of maintaining stability. Dictators - or individuals power hungry enough to risk becoming dictators - have a tendency to justify their actions in the name of stability. So much for enlightened leaders.
Nkurunziza’s argument was that his first term in office didn’t count towards the two-term limit. Burundi’s constitutional court sided with him, and he won his third term. But it was a hollow victory, and the violence continued, peaking in December 2015 with approximately 200 deaths.
Refugees have been fleeing the violence in massive numbers. Over 260,000 Burundians have escaped over the last year, and up to 330,000 are expected to leave Burundi by year’s end. For a country with a population of 10 million, that’s a huge number (3% of the total population). By comparison, if 3% of the American population fled it would represent 10 million Americans. That would be equivalent to the entire state of Georgia disappearing within a year.
Refugees fleeing Burundi have travelled to Tanzania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, which is undergoing its own 3rd-term constitutional crisis with President Joseph Kabila (son of Laurent Kabila, who overthrew Mobutu). Burundians with more means - or relatives to take them in - have fled to Rwanda. Two to three thousand Burundians are estimated to be fleeing weekly.
Risk of massacres
Due, among other things, to ethnic divisions in Burundi, there is a looming threat of mass killings. East Africa, including Burundi, is no stranger to massacres and genocides perpetrated along ethnic divisions. There are organizations attempting to keep track of the chances of mass killings, such as the Early Warning Project and the Good Judgment Project. Unfortunately, the odds are not so low.