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Burundi’s worsening crisis ‘is political, not ethnic’

Stringer, AFP | A military vehicle, carrying men tied up, drives through Burundi's capital Bujumbura on December 11, 2015
5 min

A deadly burst of violence in troubled Burundi has stoked fears that the country’s political crisis could escalate into a full-blown conflict, barely a decade after the end of a civil war fought largely along ethnic lines.


Dozens of people were killed on Friday after coordinated attacks on three military sites prompted a fierce crackdown by security forces in and around the capital, Bujumbura.

The army said 87 people died during and after the attacks, including eight soldiers and 79 people it identified as "enemies" of the government. But other sources said the real toll was significantly higher.

Several witnesses quoted by AFP and REUTERS news agencies accused the security forces of extrajudicial killings, describing officers breaking down doors in search of young men and shooting them at close range.

Some of the victims had their arms tied behind their backs, they said.

“Figures are still unconfirmed, but credible local sources at the weekend were saying that more than 100 people had been killed – including people not involved in the attacks on the military,” said Carina Tertsakian, Burundi researcher for Human Rights Watch (HRW), in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Tertsakian called for “a serious, independent investigation to establish the exact circumstances of the killings”, noting that Burundi’s “politicised and corrupt judicial system” was not up to the task.

She pointed out that police and local authorities had swiftly removed bodies in the wake of the killings, thereby compromising the investigation.

‘Not like the 1990s’

The outburst of violence was the deadliest since President Pierre Nkurunziza announced in April he would seek a third term in office, a move his opponents described as unconstitutional.

Since then, the country has been through a botched coup, a boycotted election, a failed African mediation and waves of deadly violence.

Prior to Friday’s killings, the United Nations said at least 240 people had been killed in clashes between supporters and opponents of the 51-year-old president, and 200,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries.

Critics say Nkurunziza’s regime has seized on the opportunity to crack down on all forms of dissent, including prominent human rights activists.

The worsening violence has raised fears of a return to civil war and stirred the spectre of ethnic strife, a decade after the end of a 1993-2006 conflict between rebels from the country’s ethnic Hutu majority and an army dominated by minority Tutsis.

Some 300,000 people were killed in the war, which began just a few months before a genocide of mostly Tutsis in neighbouring Rwanda, home to a similar ethnic mix.



“The latest killings definitely represent an escalation, but the violence has swung up and down throughout the crisis and the situation is still very unpredictable,” said HRW’s Tertsakian.

While stressing the urgency of the situation, she cautioned against drawing parallels with the ethnic bloodshed that once scarred the country.

“It’s a different situation from the 1990s,” she said. “This is not an ethnic conflict but a political one, pitting a president who is clinging on to power against a variety of opponents.”

Tertsakian said a handful of politicians had indulged in some sort of ethnic rhetoric to whip up support, but that they had largely failed to ethnicise the crisis.

She added that people targeted by security forces included both Tutsis and Hutus opposed to Nkurunziza.

Time for diplomacy

Friday’s killings raised alarm bells around the world, prompting the US State Department to urge all US citizens in the country to “leave as soon as it feasible to do so”.

But despite the growing alarm, HRW’s Tertsakian said Nkurunziza’s regime remained in denial about the volatile situation.

“Government officials have released statements that are quite shocking in their apparent indifference to the killings, suggesting the situation is calm and under control,” she said.

Florent Geel of the Paris-based International Human Rights Federation (FIDH) said the Burundian regime remained “stubbornly deaf” to both domestic and international pressure for a negotiated solution.

He also noted that the festering crisis had led to a “radicalisation of the opposition”, as evidenced by Friday’s coordinated attacks on military targets.

Geel said the United Nations and African Union had to step up the pressure on Burundi’s authorities and push for a government of national unity.

“The UN’s Human Rights body will hold a special session in Geneva on Thursday. We’re expecting them to unveil strong measures, such as sending a team of negotiators and deploying a police force to monitor the situation,” he told FRANCE 24.

Following Friday’s violence, the European Union urged Burundi's opposing sides to begin a political dialogue with Uganda acting as mediator.

As a sweetener, EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said the bloc stood ready to provide a financial contribution to get the talks off to an "immediate start".

“We need a massive diplomatic push and we need it fast,” said Geel. “If not, we could end up in six months with UN peacekeepers stuck in yet another inextricable conflict.”

The trial of 28 people accused in connection with a May attempt to overthrow President Pierre Nkurunziza began on Monday at the supreme court in the town of Gitega. The defendants include former defence minister Cyrille Ndayirukiye and 27 military and security officials. The botched coup occurred on May 13 while the president was out of the country, but collapsed two days later following stiff resistance from Nkurunziza loyalists.


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