Bloodshed in Burundi

Nearly 30 years after the tragedy in Rwanda, Burundi has taken the first steps on the same, violent path to genocide.

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By Katherine Kibatullin

The Rwandan genocide took place during the country’s civil war, a conflict which erupted in 1990 between the government—led by an ethnic group called the Hutu—and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The underlying tensions between these two groups could be traced back to decades before the beginning of the war when the Hutu population suffered from postcolonial serfdom at the hands of their Tutsi counterparts. The Tutsis were overthrown and forced into exile in Uganda following yet another civil war in 1963. Decades later, the RPF, made up of former Tutsi exiles, invaded Rwanda and set up camps along the northern border. Spurred on by propaganda, nationalism, and decades of ethnic conflict, the Hutus began the infamous 100-day period in 1994, slaughtering over a million people. This number included both Tutsis and moderate Hutus alike, along with any minority group deemed threatening in the power vacuum present. Ultimately, 70 percent of the Tutsi population and 20 percent of Rwanda's total population were killed by the radical Hutus. Their most powerful weapon became the mandated identification cards left over from colonial Belgian rule, which allowed for the collection of ethnic data by the government—in particular, the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi citizens.

Following the genocide, many Tutsis and other refugees found themselves in the neighboring country of Burundi, whose own president had been assassinated during its civil war. Since then, Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza’s rule has plunged the country into a steep economic decline. After defying his constitutional term limits in 2015, Nkurunziza has depended on underground vigilante groups to carry out his bidding, sending the economy into a tailspin. Afraid of the president’s frequent intimidation of opposition groups, the unstable economy, and growing ethnic tensions between the various groups in the country, over 300,000 refugees have fled Burundi into neighboring African states.

Yet, none of the president’s actions compare to his controversial reforms aimed at the countless humanitarian aid groups active in Burundi. Nkurunziza has set in motion a series of laws that require all foreign aid groups to deposit a percentage of their annual budgets in the Burundi National Bank, meet an employee quota of 60 percent Hutu and 40 percent Tutsi workers, and—most disturbingly—report the ethnicities of all locally employed workers to the government. If a foreign non-government organization (NGO) fails to comply with the measures, their operatives are forcibly removed from the government and, in some cases, arrested. In protest, many aid groups have withdrawn from Burundi entirely, with others opting to have their operation status suspended indefinitely.

Yet, Nkurunziza’s stance remains firm, as it is no secret that his new regulations provide him with ethnic data he can exploit for his own agenda: intimidation, kidnappings, and blatant murder. The president threatens to reawaken centuries-old tensions between the two ethnic groups, putting Africa at risk of another devastating genocide.

The lack of Western media coverage and foreign intervention in a human rights crisis that could mean a repeat of the 1994 genocide is appalling. After launching an internal investigation, the United Nations released a public statement acknowledging the missteps taken by the UN during the Rwandan genocide. Former Secretary-General Kofi Annan also confirmed rumors that a cable warning of an impending genocide sent to UN headquarters six months before the violence began was ignored. These momentous mistakes reflect an alarming sentiment that continues to survive in the modern day. With its long history of overdue intervention, the UN should place the tense political situation in Burundi at the top of their watchlist. This is not only to ensure that such oversights are not repeated, but also to act upon the very principles the organization was founded on.

Unfortunately, major steps have yet to be taken in Burundi. In response to the current refugee crisis, the UN has been providing only basic aid, including necessities for the 300,000 refugees who have fled Burundi. Sending temporary supplies while ignoring the root of the problem in Burundi is a policy the UN should reconsider. Legitimate change starts with Nkurunziza’s resignation or removal from the presidential office. The African Union, an alliance of 55 countries on the continent, should tighten regulations and play a greater role in Burundi’s legal processes. Treaties to increase funding for anti-corruption efforts should move forward, and the list of prohibited governmental actions should be expanded. All of these steps should coalesce into a peaceful election, its legitimacy ensured and enforced by the African Union and the United Nations. The winning candidate of any presidential election should have a vision for a stable and peaceful Burundi and move forward to leave decades of ethnic tensions behind. The consequences of inaction have been high before. And this time, everyone knows the result.