Burundi: time is running out

Diplomacy has failed, and the international media has turned its back. But the crisis is continuing, writes Philip Kleinfeld.

New mud-brick housing is being constructed at Mahama but thousands are still living in tents and communal hangars. © Philip Kleinfeld

Patrick was making his way to work in Mutakura – a province of Burundi’s capital Bujumbura associated with anti-government protests – when the police decided to stop him. Accused of opposing Burundi’s ruling party, the 40-year-old housekeeper was abducted, locked away in the back of a truck and driven to a small town in the countryside.

‘I was very afraid,’ he says. ‘I was captured with many others. They accused us of being rebels and taking part in protests.’

It wasn’t until the police managed to extract a $90 ransom from his boss that Patrick, who says he has never participated in a political protest in his life, was finally released. Still shaken by the incident, he decided to move away from the restive neighbourhood to a safer part of Bujumbura. In the small, crisis-ridden east African country, though, real security can be hard to find.

‘Most Burundians live in fear,’ he admits. ‘What happened to me could happen to them as well.’

Trouble erupted in Burundi in early 2015, when the country’s president Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would stand for a third term in office. That move, which critics said violated a two-term constitutional limit, triggered mass protests in the capital, a failed coup and a brutal – and at times indiscriminate – state crackdown on protesters and political opponents. Nkurunziza subsequently won the elections, which were boycotted by opposition parties.

On one day in December 2015, government security forces rampaged through civilian neighbourhoods after an attack by insurgents in the capital. Houses were looted and at least 87 people died in what Amnesty International described as ‘systematic killings’.

A year later, the government is keen to project an image of stability. But while protests in Bujumbura have since died down and international attention has faded, few feel the situation has improved in any meaningful way.

Adults cook lunch and wash clothes at Mahama refugee camp, in southeast Rwanda.

Philip Kleinfeld

In areas of Bujumbura associated with opposition to Nkurunziza, searches by members of Burundi’s security apparatus continue to spread fear, while human rights groups continue to document cases of torture, killings, abductions and sexual abuse of women.

‘The government knows they still need to exercise political violence to be sure they quell any opposition,’ says Benjamin Chemouni, teaching fellow at the London School of Economics. ‘This could be the possibility of small armed groups, activists or journalists. They know that their basis for power is still very fragile.’

Escalating crisis

Alongside the threat of persecution, those living in Burundi – already one of the world’s poorest nations – face an economy in crisis, with sanctions, cuts from major donors, a ban on trade to Rwanda and a shortage of foreign currency. In 2015 the economy shrank by 7.4 per cent, according to the International Monetary Fund.

‘There is nothing left to do,’ says Diane, a 27-year-old from Bujumbura who studied hospitality and tourism, an area of the economy badly affected by the crisis. ‘It’s about opportunities for employment, having something meaningful in your country.’

The displacement – largely neglected by international media – is rapidly becoming one of Africa’s biggest refugee crises

Humanitarian needs are also on the rise. Massive cuts to public spending and a decline in external funding have ‘hampered the provision of basic public services’ according to the UN. Nearly half of Burundi’s 10-million population are considered food insecure by the World Food Programme (WPF), and around 600,000 require emergency food assistance. ‘The socio-political crisis has aggravated an already fragile food security, nutrition and socio-economic context in Burundi,’ WPF said last year.

Put together, the violence, economic decline and worsening humanitarian situation have helped trigger an exodus of over 327,000 people to neighbouring countries. In a recent interview, David Nash, Médecins Sans Frontières’ Tanzania Head of Mission, said the displacement – largely neglected by international media – is ‘rapidly becoming one of Africa’s biggest refugee crises’.

At the refugee camps that scale is hard to miss. On a recent morning in Mahama, a camp of over 50,000 Burundians in southeast Rwanda, white, tattered tents stretch almost as far as the eye can see. A funding gap of over 50 per cent in the UN Refugee Agency’s 2016 Burundi emergency response means the camp and others across the region remain severely overstretched.

The Mahama refugee camp, in southeast Rwanda.

Philip Kleinfeld

Standing outside one of a dozen rundown communal hangers where thousands still live, a 49- year-old mother of eight, who says she fled the violence that followed Nkurunziza’s third mandate, fights back tears as she describes the conditions.

‘We sleep on the ground and the tent is torn up,’ she says. ‘We have been there for a long time, soon it will be two years, without anywhere to stay.’

‘There is not enough food,’ adds a 30-year-old father of three who fled northern Burundi in April 2015. ‘A whole month can pass without getting any cooking wood. Life as a refugee is not easy at all.’

While the root cause of Burundi’s crisis lies in Nkurunziza’s third term, some fear the unrest could reopen old wounds and morph from a political crisis into an ethnic conflict. Like neighbouring Rwanda, Burundi has experienced several bouts of extreme ethnic violence between its majority Hutu and minority Tutsi ethnic groups over the past few decades; the most recent civil war ended in 2005 and cost the lives of around 300,000 people.

The country’s ruling CNDD-FDD party is multi-ethnic but was founded during that war as a Hutu rebel group fighting a predominantly Tutsi government and army. Since the present crisis began, high-ranking members of the CNDD-FDD have used anti-Tutsi hate speech, linked opposition to Nkurunziza to Tutsis and repeatedly blamed the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan government for allegedly interfering in the country.

A recent report by the International Federation For Human Rights – dismissed by the Burundi government – argued that ‘the seeds of the genocidal logic’ against Tutsis have already ‘been planted’. The report warned of an increase in pro-Hutu ethnic ideology, the promotion of Hutu hardliners within the CNDD-FDD and the systematic targeting of Tutsi officials within the national army.

Among refugees it certainly isn’t hard to find evidence of ethnic persecution. ‘We fled because they said they were going to do a genocide of Tutsis that don’t accept the views of Nkurunziza,’ says a 30-year-old farmer and recent arrival at Mahama, who describes being physically assaulted by members of the ruling party’s feared youth wing, Imbonerakure. ‘They told us that [Tutsis] have been creating problems for many years.’

A local school in Mahama hosting child refugees from Burundi.

Philip Kleinfeld

While Chemouni accepts Tutsis are being targeted, he argues that a genocide remains unlikely. Both Hutus and Tutsis face state repression, he says, adding that Nkurunziza understands he would face a robust international response if violence does break out along ethnic lines.

‘I don’t think the crisis at the moment involves a plan to eradicate Tutsis,’ he says. ‘It is a plan for political survival. Nkurunziza and his cronies know that if they go there in too open a manner then the international community might act. Everyone has Rwanda in the back of their minds.’

In a country still traumatized by 10 years of brutal ethnic conflict, that could change though, Chemouni adds. Extremists within the CNDD-FDD could choose to use the present crisis ‘to take revenge on the Tutsi population’ for the past, he says, adding that a military intervention backed by Rwanda could also ‘introduce the idea of Tutsis [who ruled Burundi, often brutally, for decades] coming back to take power.’

‘That would really serve on a golden platter the kind of ethnic discourse that Nkurunziza could use to mobilize the population,’ Chemouni says.

Despite evidence that Burundi rebels have been trained by Rwanda at Mahama, experts say appetite for external intervention remains limited. Rwanda is particularly cautious about further regional destabilization after its much-criticized role backing M23 rebels in DR Congo, and ahead of its current leader Paul Kagame’s controversial bid for a third term as president in elections this year.

In a part of the world where armed movements depend to a large extent on external sponsorship, that leaves Burundi’s patchwork of relatively ineffectual rebel groups in something of a bind, according to Chemouni. ‘At the moment they are not powerful enough,’ he says. ‘If they have no external support it is very hard for them to access weapons and launch a large-scale military operation.’

According to experts, one thing that could break the current status-quo and escalate the crisis is a split within the Burundi armed forces, either between competing Hutu factions or, more worryingly, between Hutus and Tutsis.

‘That becomes a really frightening scenario because then you are talking about very heavily armed factions operating within a very small urban space,’ says Phil Clark, reader in comparative and international politics at the London School of African and Oriental Studies. ‘Military factions have patronage networks, all kinds of relationships in the countryside and quite fixed ethnic identities. We haven’t seen this fully up until now, but you can’t discount it entirely.’

In the long term, displaced people living in refugee camps also pose a danger. According to the UN Refugee Agency’s projection for 2017, the number of Burundi refugees in the region will rise to 534,000 by the end of this year. ‘You are creating a problem for the future having all this population outside,’ says Chemouni. ‘Refugees are a reservoir for anyone that wants to create a rebel movement.’

Women and children account for majority of the population at Mahama Refugee Camp.

Philip Kleinfeld

Back in Mahama, the afternoon sun beats down on the camp as a cluster of refugees help build new roads and mud-brick houses for the expanding population. With diplomatic options in Burundi running out and the blood still flowing, few expect a quick return.

‘What we flee is still there,’ says the father-of-three from northern Burundi. ‘I can’t say the situation is going to get better; instead, it is going to get worse.’

*All names have been changed or withheld; some other details have been altered to protect interviewees and their families inside Burundi.