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Burundi: Conflict Overview

Published On December 16, 2015 | Africa

Since May 2015, the Burundian Republic has been facing a violent conflict between the pro-Government forces, led by President Nkurunziza, and the opposite forces represented by the ‘rebels’. Among the several factors leading to the development of this conflict, we  may take into account political corruption  and the president’s interest of ruling the state by himself, but also the unresolved conflicts which took place in the past(the civil war, the two genocides). Possessing the historical knowledge, we may conclude that the  current situation has its roots in the past.

History implications and involvement

The case of Burundi is worldwide known, although it has been ignored for several years. The African country has been in an ongoing conflict for almost six decades due to ethnical and political reasons, which have led, so far, to more than 300,000 deaths, over 200,000 refugees and several political and social changes (including wars and fights).

The origins of the Burundian civil war (as it is called) may be traced to the last century, starting with the period of the Colonization and the European ‘protectorates’ within the African territories. Burundi (nowadays called alike) was a German colony until the First World War, and it became a Belgian colony with the ‘re-organizing Process’ which started after the German loss. However, in 1962, the state of Burundi took form by claiming and gaining its independence from the Kingdom of Belgium.

In 1962, the Belgium territory from the area of the ‘state’ Ruanda-Urundi (as it was known in that period) was being divided into two states, Rwanda and Burundi. The second one affirmed its independence on the1st of July day by proclaiming the new monarchic constitutional real state, and by naming the king in the person of Mwambutsa IV. Only a few years later (in 1966) the King was deposed by his son and the Burundian state started to break into a political crisis, as the new king made  various constitutional changes, he also succeeding in staging a coup d’etat.

However, the real problems started to occur in Burundi after the political crisis, the main reason being the fact that the population was ethnically divided into two large groups: the Hutu (the majority, around 86% of the population) and the Tutsis (the minority, 13%).

The two genocides

Even as a minority, the Tutsi maintained a near monopoly on senior government and military positions.  On April 27, 1972, a rebellion led by some Hutu members broke out in the lakeside towns of Rumonge and Nyanza-Lac. As a response, President Michel Micombero (Tutsi) proclaimed martial law and his armed forces killed the Hutus en masse. The initial phases of the genocide were clearly orchestrated, with lists of targets including the Hutu educated—the elite—and the militarily trained. Once this had been completed, the Tutsi-controlled army moved against the larger civilian populations. The moment represented a ‘turning point’ in Burundi’s internal affairs, being known as the First Burundian Genocide.  The Hutu rebellion was countered by the governmental-Tutsi and led to 80,000 to 210,000 people killed, while a similar number of people is thought to have left Burundi for countries like Rwanda, Tanzania and Zaire (the refugees being from the Hutu part).

Several years later (1988), the conflict experienced another turn when the Tutsi politically high member (Pierre Buyoya) suspended  the Constitution and enforced the one-party rule, also overturning his predecessor, who was also a Tutsi member (Jean-Baptiste Bagaza), who tried, between 1981 and 1986, to proclaim various liberties for the people. Nevertheless, the regime changes led the Burundian People’s to autocracy (and even dictatorship).

The recent events led to the start of the Second Burundian Genocide, which  lasted for 12 years, from 1993 to 2005. The first time the rebels gathered was when the first democratic election took place, in Burundi, the 27 of June of 1993, also the moment when Melchior Ndadaye became the first Hutu president. Nevertheless, after only four months, the Tutsi succeeded  in the attempt of assassinating him, which led the country once again to war. The Hutu majority, now governing, started the open attacks against the Tutsis, what the United Nations recognized in 1996 as being a majority genocide over the minority of the same state. The capital of Burundi, Bujumbura, was one of the fields of the massacre, and also the place where a considerable number of Hutu refugees were killed by Tutsis, in 1994.

After the awful event, the well-known politician and former president, Pierre Buyoya, from the Tutsis, took power by force throughout another coup (1996), suspending again the Constitution. He sought the peace of his people, helping in the mediation process by South Africa and its leader, Nelson Mandela.

The event represented the transition from the colony (until 1962) to a democratic and liberal country (starting in 2005), dealing,  nevertheless,  with the consequences of two genocides, according to the International Commission of Inquiry for Burundi presented to the United Nation Security Council in 2002. However, the peace process is soon to be over.

After 2005

The new Constitution, adopted in 2005, is the guarantor for political representation for both ethnic groups involved in the past conflicts, the Hutu and the Tutsis. In the  following 10 years, the Burundi’s political and social attempts for peace succeeded (although in the 2010 elections there took  place a few acts of rebellion and demonstrations), but the situation changed afterwards.

The causes of the most recent conflicts in Burundi may be traced to the electoral campaigns which took place this year in May, when the president, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced that he would be running for the presidential for the third time. The announcement was followed by a round of public meetings and protests, resulting in three deaths and 21 wounded victims caught in the confrontation.

Although the international community and public opinion were against his new stand for a third mandate (such as the US State Secretary John Kerry who inquired that the new standing of Nkurunziza ‘flies directly in the face of the constitution’, or the Burundian Opposition who affirmed that the Constitutional Court, which gave Nkurunziza the right to stand, was ‘manipulated’), however, he has been elected again, for the third time, in July this year.

Prior to his new election, other events were taking place in the African State, one of them being the actions of Major General Godefroid Niyombare, who declared (another) coup d’état in this country, this time against the President, in May this year. He sustained in a radio emission that ‘Nkurunziza is dismissed, his government is dismissed too’, while the President was returning  from Tanzania in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, whereupon his loyal soldiers fought against the rebel ones and the ‘coup’ was defeated. Nkurunziza thanked the Loyalists and congratulated ‘the army and the police for their patriotism’, but also, ‘above all, the Burundian people for their patience’.

Too many goals, too small the reason

Since the beginning of the Burundian conflict, the fight camps are well defined between President Nkurunziza, with all his loyalists, and the opposition. Pierre Nkurunziza, a former Hutu rebel leader, became the first president to be chosen in democratic elections since the start of Burundi’s civil war in 1993. His election by parliamentarians in 2005 vote was one of the final steps in a peace process intended to end years of fighting between Hutu rebels and the Tutsi-controlled army.

Now, the President wishes to maintain his rank and his privileges, mostly leading to the Constitutional Court’s approval (although this is contested). By changing the laws for his third opportunity to run for Presidency (and to win, afterwards), President Nkurunziza has changed the people’s stability (in social terms). Nevertheless, he is surrounded by some of the most influent men (such as Guillaume Bunyoni, minister of public security, Godefroid Niyombare, major general and former chief of Burundi’s intelligence service, in other words, most of the country’s authorities). Their major goal is to keep their status, and most of all, to disregard the protesters, by making them look like terrorists and ‘against the nationhood’.

On the other hand, the protestors felt the right to make demonstrations since May this year, once with the announcement for the third run of Nkurunziza. The ‘leaders’ of the demonstrators are the Opposition factions, including military commanders (such as General Leonard Ngendakumana, one of the men behind the unsuccessful coup d’etat) or political elites, like Pie Ntavyohanyuma, the former President of the National Assembly. Once Nkurunziza won, the street battles intensified and the desire to get to an understanding in the small state of Burundi was hard to obtain. People started to fear for a new civil war, deciding, hence, to leave their homes.

The most important issue to settle in Burundi: the refugees flee and return

Before the election, the violence between the Nkurunziza’s government and the rebels forces killed around 240 people (since this Spring) and created an influx of refugees to Tanzania around 110,000 from the Burundi State; moreover, the other countries to receive Burundian refugees are Rwanda (up to 71,000), Uganda (15,100), Democratic Republic of Congo (around 13,500), or Zambia (around 700 refugees from Burundi).

In Tanzania, ‘the Nyarugusu camp is already the third largest refugee camp in the world, and Nduta is growing by the day’, affirmed Jane Foster, Oxfam’s Country Director in Tanzania. The situation worsened due to the fact that more and more refugees are coming, and the supplies of food and water are limited. The health care is also hard to manage, this being why the fear of cholera grew. Furthermore, Elijah Okeyo, Country Director for IRC in Tanzania, reiterated: ‘While refugees in Europe are making headlines, the international community must also remember that the situation for Burundians in neighbouring countries is equally devastating.’ This is what the political environment and, most important, the history grievances of the people for their Government leads to, quoting the Rwandan President, Paul Kagame, who affirmed: ‘They should have learned the lesson of our history’.

The ongoing crisis

Besides the situation of the refugees within the Burundian State, the growth of violence between its people is leading to a possible war. In the last months since the President ‘won’ the elections, the situation of the forces involved is worsening. Only in the last week of November, the number of killings reached to seven people, and six wounded, near the capital city of Bujumbura.

In all this time, the Government accuses the ‘armed criminals’ or the ‘terrorists’, meaning the rebels., while the number of official deaths is around 34, which represents that the policemen killed during the confrontations.

Nevertheless, the international opinion reiterates again over the ‘possible violence leading to war’ in Burundi, since the President was entitled again in July this year. One of the sources of information is Amnesty International, and its reports show the ‘torture and other ill-treatments’ against the demonstrators, while the Police of Burundi and the National Intelligence Service are still using the ‘forcing detainees heads under water’ methods. Also, the Unite States inquired that the police actions against the protesters were against the law, and accused the vice-president of Burundi, Mr. Bunyiony, of ‘disproportionate use of force and acts of violence repression’.

Furthermore, the US took several actions against the official leaders of Burundi, such as  visa restrictions and blocking of ‘their US assets’(for four of them, including Alain Guillaume Bunyoni, minister of public security; Godefroid Bizimana, deputy director-general of the national police; Godefroid Niyombare, major general and former chief of Burundi’s intelligence service; and Cyrille Ndayirukiye, former minister of defense), which is shown by a White House statement imposed by the US President Barack Obama in November this year.

Afterwards, the US National Security Council spokesman Ned Price declared that ‘We have received multiple, credible, and ongoing reports of targeted killings, arbitrary arrests, torture, and political repression by security forces, as well as violence and abuses by youth militia affiliated with the ruling party’. Also, in November, the United Nations Security Council held a resolution against the Burundi’s conflict, which strongly blames the ‘increasing killings, torture and human rights violations in Burundi and threatening possible sanctions against those contributing to the violence’, unanimity voted act. At the same time, the Burundian President maintains his position by allowing the policemen to use force for the ‘peace restoring within a month’, and adding that people have five days to drop out their guns, otherwise ‘will be taken as criminals and be prosecuted according to the anti-terrorism law and be dealt with as enemies of the nation’.

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