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“Bodies dumped on the streets on an almost nightly basis": Burundi’s crisis, explained

A Burundian woman grieves after a relative was killed by police.
A Burundian woman grieves after a relative was killed by police.
(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Burundi, a small country in Africa's Great Lakes region, is in the midst of some seriously dangerous violence. Since April, more than 240 people have been killed; according to a letter written by concerned NGOs, "bodies [are] dumped on the streets on an almost nightly basis."

And things could get much, much worse. Adama Dieng, the UN's special adviser on the prevention of genocide, said that the government's rhetoric is "very similar to language used before and during the genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda."

Experts following the conflict, though, are quick to point out that Burundi's situation is very different from Rwanda's, and that while the risk of more violence is real, it does not currently appear to be ethnic in nature or yet prone to what would qualify as genocide. Still, what's happening there is deadly serious.

Here's a look at how things got so bad — and the desperate attempts by the international community to make sure they don't get any worse.

The immediate crisis

burundi protests police
Burundian riot police near burning barricades.
(Phil Moore/AFP/Getty Images)

The current crisis began in April 2015, when President Nkurunziza's political party, the CNDD-FDD (National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy), announced that he'd be running for a third term. This violated the Arusha Accords, the 2000 peace agreement that helped end Burundi's civil war in 2005, and which limits the president to two terms.

The announcement inspired mass protests against Nkurunziza's perceived power grab. It also led a number of more moderate CNDD-FDD leaders to leave the party and join the opposition — thus empowering the party's more extremist, violent wings.

In May, several members of the military attempted to launch a coup while Nkurunziza was out of town. They failed — but it instilled a paranoia among Nkurunziza and his advisors that there was a traitor in their midst.

Burundi held its presidential election in July. Nkurunziza won, but the election was "not monitored by anyone credible," Jones says, and "everyone boycotted it." The election was surrounded by low-level violence.

Things got worse after the assassination of a key Nkurunziza ally in August, which further intensified the regime's paranoia.

There's "a very fearful inner circle" running Burundi, says Cara Jones, a professor of political science at Mary Baldwin College who studies Burundi. "I imagine now [it's] about four or five people calling the shots."

The result, she says, was "a more naked form of violence and repression against political opponents" than in years prior.

Since August, according to Human Rights Watch, there have been a spate of killings, many of them apparently political, that have claimed more than 100 lives. This has included some killings by security forces, as well as apparently retaliatory attacks.

"They are shooting police officers, they are throwing grenades, and they are physically attacking Imbonerakure [pro-government youth militant groups]," Jones says.

This violence has gradually escalated. Human Rights Watch here details two of the deadliest incidents to date, both in October:

Multiple witnesses said that men in police uniforms carried out both attacks, apparently in retaliation for attacks on policemen by armed men presumed sympathetic to the opposition. The first attack killed at least seven residents and the second killed nine. In the Cibitoke attack, residents recognized members of the ruling party youth league who collaborated with policemen during the attack. Two witnesses saw between 7 and 10 dead bodies in civilian clothes being loaded into a police truck the day after the attack.

In the second attack, in Ngagara, the victims included a cameraman who worked for the state broadcaster. Police shot him dead, then ordered his wife, nephew, and two teenage children to come out of the house, made them and a local guard lie down on the main street, and shot each of them in the head, according to multiple witnesses.

On November 2, Nkurunziza issued an ultimatum: Anyone who possessed illegal firearms was required to turn them in by November 7, after which security forces would conduct door-to-door searches.

But human rights groups worried that the searches, amid Burundi's tension, could spark more violence — a fear bolstered by Nkurunziza's incendiary rhetoric. He said police were "authorized to use all means at [their] disposal to find these weapons and re-establish security," and that anyone found with illegal arms would be "punished in accordance with the anti-terrorist law and fought like enemies of the nation."

Thankfully, those fears did not come to pass. But the past week has still hardly been peace and quiet.

How this crisis could escalate out of control

Burundians bury an assassinated opposition figure.
(Phil Moore/AFP/Getty Images)

In order to why this situation is so dangerous, you need to go back to 2005. Burundi's 12-year civil war had just ended, which had included mass killings and violence along ethnic lines, claiming an estimated 300,000 lives — a staggering death toll. The Arusha Accords, signed in 2000 a few years before the war ended, set up a structure for democratic power sharing between the war's antagonists.

But shortly afterward, Nkurunziza and the CNDD-FDD began to undermine the fragile agreement. In 2010, they attempted to rig the elections. Many opposition parties boycotted, and the CNDD-FDD retained the presidency and gained huge majorities in the legislative agenda.

"Due to the 2010 electoral impasse, the Arusha agreement has been replaced by a de facto one-party system characterised by the end of dialogue between the opposition and the ruling party, the government’s authoritarian drift and the resumption of political violence," the International Crisis Group wrote in a 2012 report.

Since then, CNDD-FDD's authoritarianism has worsened: Reports of crackdowns on protests and attacks on dissidents have become more common.

"This deteriorating into a civil war is a very real possibility," Tom Periello, the US special envoy for the Great Lakes Region of Africa, told me, says. According to Jones, there's "a very real likelihood that there's a new rebellion brewing" already in the Burundian hinterlands or in nearby Rwanda.

To be clear, that does not mean that Burundi is on the verge of repeating the horrors of its earlier civil war, which was marked by widespread ethnic violence and mass killings that are not currently present. Rather, the country's current violence is both much smaller and largely political rather than ethnic. Still, the risk of political tensions growing into a political conflict are present and serious, and the danger of a war is a real one, even if that war does not look like the last one.

Human rights groups have expressed particular alarm at a recent statement from one of the country's top politicians.

"Today, the police shoot in the legs," Reverien Ndikuriyo, the president of Burundi's Senate, said last week. "But when the day comes that we tell them to go to 'work,' do not come crying to us."

The phrase "go to work" was used by Hutus to describe killing Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide. The reference is unmistakable in Burundi: Like its neighbor Rwanda, Burundi has a Hutu majority (of which Nkurunziza is a member) and a Tutsi minority, whose members generally support the opposition. Maybe it was a live threat and maybe it was just rhetoric, but even if it's the latter it is still not helpful.

But it's important to remember that the primary axis of Burundi's conflict is political, not ethnic. Many Hutus are also pro-opposition, which means any campaign of mass slaughter would target people based on political affiliation rather than ethnic identity.

"In political science, we call this politicide," Jones explained. It is still concerning, though, in part because its logic can sprawl. "The number of enemies is growing, and the reasons behind that targeting is growing," she added.

Can the worst case be stopped?

A member of Burundi's security forces watches a CNDD-FDD rally.
(Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images)

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni is pushing for a mediated peace process between the two sides. The question is how to get the cloistered and increasingly paranoid Nkurunziza to sit down and make peace.

One option is international pressure from the US, the African Union, and the ICC. Burundi lacks strong allies or a strong economy; the threat of international sanctions and/or ICC indictments might actually pull them to the table.

A senior State Department official described Nkurunziza's position as this: "We're bankrupt, we're already at war, our economy is at a standstill, and we don't seem to have friends coming to our rescue."

Burundi has already been hit with some targeted sanctions and aid suspensions in light of the past year of violence. The ICC has warned all parties that it's watching for war crimes. Some US officials believe the threat of more international pressure played an important role in preventing the violence from escalating into mass killing last weekend, when Nkurunziza was threatening to seize all the guns by force.

Jones thinks that this is plausible, if perhaps overstated. "I don't disagree with that, but how much of a role [the international community played] is up for debate," she wrote via email.

The international community will likely keep threatening the Burundian government with these kinds of punishments going forward. But ultimately, the success of the whole thing hinges on negotiation: whether Nkurunziza and the opposition can find some way to share power in Burundi going forward.

"There's a certain amount of zero game that makes negotiating a path going forward difficult," Perriello says. "There has to be internationally mediated talks to try to find a middle ground."

"We still have a window, no matter how narrow, to find a peaceful resolution to this crisis," he concludes.