About a year ago, I was lucky enough to meet Dean Israel Ndikumana of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Bujumbura. He came to Coventry as part of a larger visit to the UK, and his visit caused us a few problems, as several key staff were on leave. But his problems were far bigger. You see, just as he was due to return to Burundi, there was an attempted coup d’etat, forcing him to alter his travel plans. The coup was part of larger political turmoil which is ongoing, and, knowing someone caught up in the events, I have maintained a close interest them ever since. The roots of disorder lie in the decision of President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for a third term, apparently in breach of the country’s constitution. The coup attempted to remove him so free elections could be held. Its failure deepened violence, which has continued unabated since, and despite Nkurunziza’s victory an election boycotted by opposition parties.
Most of the violence appears to be the work of armed groups from both sides of the political divide, and has deteriorated into a situation comparable to gang warfare, with tit-for-tat revenge killings common, particularly in Bujumbura. Around 450 people have been killed since disorder began in April of last year, including senior military personnel, while some 250,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries, including Rwanda.
Burundi emerged in 2005, from a civil war between the country’s Hutu majority and Tutsi minority. The conflict was closely linked to that of Rwanda (a country with the same ethnic make-up), which saw the genocide of Tutsi and moderate Hutu in the spring and summer of 1994, along with the widespread war-rape and other war crimes. To say that tensions remain between the two ethnicities would be an understatement. Nonetheless, after ten years of peace, political parties in Burundi no longer follow ethnic lines and so far, to the relief of the international community, the conflict has maintained a purely political split. The attempted coup against Nkurunziza in May 2015 was led by a General who had served in the very same Hutu rebel group as Nkurunziza in the civil war. The General had previously condemned Nkurunziza’s plan, and appears to have been acting in order to prevent further violence.
All of this makes recent accusations that Rwanda has been arming anti-Nkurunziza rebels rather alarming. A UN Security Council report claims that 18 Burundian rebels have admitted to being recruited and trained in Rwanda by military personnel, and that further assistance – including funding, training and logistical support – has continued into 2016. If true, these reports (which Rwanda denies) would indicate that Rwanda is intervening in Burundian affairs, in a way which will escalate and perpetuate the disorder (in contrast with other regional governments, which have sought to negotiate an end to hostilities). The recent decision to expel some 1,300 of the tens of thousands of refugees currently sheltering in Rwanda is likely to further destabilise the situation. The country is playing a dangerous game.
What, then, might the objectives of the Rwandan establishment be? Ethnically motivated political scheming is not new to the region. It seems likely that that the murder of Rwanda’s moderate Hutu President Habyarimana in 1994 was not the work of his Tutsi opponents, but of hard-line Hutu, who wanted an excuse to initiate what became the Rwandan genocide and secure their position. Rwanda’s current president, Paul Kagame, is a Tutsi. If he is arming rebels and seeking to destabilise Burundi, it is hard not to think that he has an ulterior motive, tied into the legacy of the Tutsi-Hutu conflict.
This is all the more ominous as Kagame has blamed Nkurunziza for the ‘massacres’ occurring in Burundi and called on him to remember the lessons of the Rwandan Genocide. Of course, seeking to prevent genocide is commendable, but Kagame seems willing to act outside his own state, particularly in the interests of the Tutsi minority. It would not be a huge leap from supporting Burundian rebels on a small scale to direct intervention. Such intervention could seek to oust Nkurunziza, but if this were achieved by main force, a return to civil war would be highly likely. Since Kagame and Nkurunziza are Tutusi and Hutu respectively, this would almost certainly reignite the ethnic conflict. Indeed, Kagame must be conscious of this; he may be mentally preparing for a return to civil war, and seeking to secure the position of Burundi’s Tutsi minority. Conflict could even spill over into DR Congo, which also descended into war after the Rwandan genocide, and is currently looking down the barrel of a political crisis.
Or perhaps Kagame is planning to fight only a proxy war, a common choice in the last half century of Africa politics. Think Angola. Kagame could weaken his neighbour without ever explicitly intervening, and incurring the wrath of the African Union. From there, anything is possible…
At the moment, Burundi is in the midst of a political crisis. It has neither become all out civil war, nor has it split along ethnic lines. Yet this is a clear concern for the international community. The African Union is seeking to mediate a cessation of hostilities, the UN Security Council is considering extending monitoring in the country, and the International Criminal Court has now established an investigation into the violence of the last year. It is clear that Burundi is seen as standing on the edge of a precipice. Even as the rest of the world is seeking to coax Burundi away from the cliff, it looks as though Rwanda may be trying to push it off.