We need to talk about Burundi

As a result of the underwhelming media coverage, we are often kept in the dark when it comes to tragedies that happen on our own continent, leaving us shockingly ignorant to the desperate situations that many African countries are now in. One such country is Burundi. Since the Paris attack on Friday night, which left at least 120 dead, I have seen many on social media ask but what about Burundi? It’s a fair question, given that the country is now facing dangerous levels of violence and political instability. If we are hoping to take seriously the amount of innocent lives that are lost to senseless violence, we need to have a serious conversation about what is happening in Burundi.

The small, hilly, landlocked country is in the midst of some of the worst violence it has faced since its civil war ended in 2005. Since April, at least 240 people have been killed with bodies being dumped in the street on a nightly basis. Over 210 000 people have fled to neighbouring countries such as Rwanda and Tanzania. There are also fears that the escalating violence could be the tipping point that leads to a genocide between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority, similar to the 1993 genocide in Rwanda.

The violence was triggered in April when the CNDD-FDD (National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy) announced that President  Nkurunziza would be running for a third term. Such a move went against the 2000 peace agreement that was used to help end the civil war, the Arusha Accords, which stipulates that presidents may only be in power for two terms. The announcement was seen as a power grab by many and led to the capital, Bujumbura, being rocked by protests which resulted in 19 deaths. Shortly afterwards, there was a military coup led by General Godefroid Niyombare who was the chief of intelligence. Although the coup failed, it managed to instill paranoia among Nkurunziza and his advisors.

[Protests in Bujumbura against President Nkurunziza running for a third term]

Nkurunziza won the presidential election in July but the controversial win was seen as illegitimate by many. Since his win, killings, tortures, detentions, and other government sanctioned human rights violations have increased as the government attempts to crack down on its opposition. To make matters worse, government officials have been quoted making statements that echo those made during the Rwandan genocide. Most notably, the senate president Reverien Ndikuriyo, said about the regime opponents, “Today, the police shoot in the legs … but when the day comes that we tell them to go to ‘work,’ do not come crying to us,”. The word “work” was used during the Rwandan genocide to describe the killings of 800 000 Tutsis at the hands of the militant Hutu extremists.

Such comments cannot be taken lightly. Burundi has had a 40 year long history of armed conflict which has included genocide against the Tutsi minority. It was once joined with Rwanda under the name Ruanda-Urundi and was first controlled by the Germans and then by the Belgiums. Under colonial rule, ethnic divisions which favoured the Tutsis over the Hutus were institutionalised in order to control the Hutu majority and reinforce existing power structures. This entrenched tensions between the two groups. From 1972 onward Burundi was wracked by genocide and civil war until 2005. An estimated 300 000 people died as a result of the violence. A number of peace talks and agreements were needed in order to ensure peace, and one of the most notable ones was the Arusha Accords.

The situation in Burundi is becoming more desperate by the day. Although the UN is currently threatening to impose sanctions on the country, it has admitted that it is ill-equipped and poorly positioned to deal with a possible genocide. A number of international organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have warned that Burundi is at serious risk of sliding back into conflict. The Belgian government has also slashed aid to Burundi and told its citizens who are living there to return.

[Protesters gathered at the funeral of Emmanuel Ndere Yimana, an opposition supporter who was assasinated]

Although the AU has created the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC) to deal with the exact kind of crisis that Burundi is facing now, and South Africa has previously pledged to contribute at least 1800 military personnel to it, President Jacob Zuma has now been strangely quiet on the matter. This is particularly concerning given that a senior SANDF official has stated that South Africa has the military capacity to deal with the crisis.

Now, we could certainly have a long conversation about whether or not military interventions are always the best way to go about things, especially considering the effect that US military interventions have had on Middle Eastern and Asian countries. However, what is frightening is the fact that conversations surrounding Burundi are not happening as frequently and as publicly as they should be.

I find it deeply concerning that it took the Paris attacks for many to even mention Burundi at all. If we are going to take seriously the value of human lives in Africa, it should not take a tragedy in the west to make people start paying attention to tragedies on our home continent. With any hope, the conversations that have been sparked surrounding Burundi will allow us to take seriously the need to prevent the situation there from spiraling into another civil war, and as South Africans, we can begin to seriously question why our own government has been so silent on the matter.


Information about specific government sanctioned human right’s abuses in Burundi
Broad history about Rwanda and Burundi
More detailed overview about the history of conflict in Burundi
More detailed overview of current crises


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