The Burundian Crisis and the Failure of the International Community

In 2015, there were numerous conflicts that caught the world’s attention including the Russian-Ukrainian conflict, the Syrian Civil War, and the Libyan Conflict. However, one conflict which has had little coverage outside of Africa, is the conflict in Burundi. The international community has been neglectful of Burundian conflict, with the West only imposing sanctions and the African Union issuing empty threats. As a result, the only solution currently is mediation, which does not seem promising.

Current Crisis

The current crisis in Burundi began when President Nkurunziza decided to run for a third presidential term in April of 2015. This decision was very controversial because the constitution set a two term presidential limit, yet President Nkurunziza argued he was eligible because he was elected president by the National Assembly and the Senate for his first presidential term. President Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term provoked outrage and protests, and in May there was an attempted coup in which members of military tried to seize power while the president was in Tanzania.  The coup failed and President Nkurunziza returned to power, winning the June election with 69.41 percent of the vote. The election, however, had been boycotted by the opposition claiming that President Nkurunziza had violated the constitution.

While the legitimacy of President’s Nukurunziza is debatable, what is more important in this crisis, is the very real possibility that the country could be brought back to a civil war as it was from 1995-2005, which claimed the lives of 300,000 people. With the threat of the return to a civil war, Reverien Ndikuriyo, the President of the Senate, has said, “Today, police shoot in the legs, but when the day comes that we tell them to go to ‘work,’ don’t come crying to us.” In the context of this quote, the word ‘work’ refers to the Rwandan genocide. In that war,  ‘work’ was a euphemism for unleashing the violence that led to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda which resulted in the deaths of 800,000 people in 100 days.

Two former Burundian presidents have asked the United Nations (UN) to intervene to stop the violence, one saying that if the UN does not intervene, then there could be a repeat of the Rwandan genocide. In an article on Open Democracy, Nath Gbikpi claims that the government is targeting primarily young Tutsi citizens and is trying to portray the current crisis along ethnic lines, saying that the Tutsi minority are trying to bring down the Hutu President.

While there have been claims that Burundi could fall back into ethnic strife, it has also been claimed that the current conflict is more political than ethnic. Human Rights Watch has reported that the government has targeted both Hutu and Tutsi opposition forces implying that the conflict may in fact cut across ethnic lines rather than along them. In either case, the Government is clearly willing to use force in order to crush the opposition.

As of January 29, 2016, at least 439 people have been killed in crackdowns by the government and 240,000 people have fled Burundi into neighboring countries. In addition to the refugees, Amnesty International has “(n)ew satellite images, video footage, and witness accounts” confirming these developments. This data has been further analyzed by Amnesty International, who claim that the data provides unequivocal evidence that the Burundian authorities allegedly buried people killed by police on 11 December 2015 in mass graves.”


While the stability and security of Burundi has been deteriorating, the international community has not been nearly as active as they have been about the Syrian, Libyan and Ukrainian crises. In the cases of Syria and Libya, there were military interventions and in Ukraine there has been intense mediation and a ceasefire established. In the case of Burundi, the European Union and United States have imposed travel bans and have frozen some assets of some officials; however, this has been largely symbolic.

The UN passed United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2248 on November 12, 2015, which “condemned increasing killings, torture and other human rights violations in Burundi.” This resolution called for the state to crackdown and punish any actor that threatened the peace and stability of Burundi, and to engage in mediation with the opposition to try and find a solution. Further, to the UNSC resolution, the UN Human Rights Council also condemned the “human rights violations and abuses in Burundi by all actors” and called for a UN mission of experts to be sent to investigate these alleged abuses.

There has been discussion of a UN intervention in November of 2015, in which the idea of deploying forces from the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), where there are UN forces, to Burundi, to try and stop the violence. However, while there have been some discussions, nothing has materialized. While the UN has only considered sending forces from the DRC, the African Union has seriously considered sending in forces, even assembling troops, in anticipation.

The deployment of 5000 African Union (AU) troops were contemplated and could have been done under Article 4 (of the AU), which permits intervention in member states, “in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.” However, while the AU could have intervened on the grounds that the Burundian government is failing to protect its people, the AU decided against deploying troops, because there are disagreements between the Burundian government and the AU. Some analysts and AU leaders have reservations to this sort of intervention because it could create a precedent in which the AU could then intervene in their own countries.

While the AU has ruled out forced intervention, the Burundian government and the AU have agreed to allow 100 human rights, and 100 military monitors to enter the country. However, this is a far cry from 5000 troops that the African Union had assembled to intervene early on in the conflict. Furthermore, these monitors have yet to arrive, and it is not clear when they will arrive.

While the AU and UN have ruled out intervening in the internal affairs of Burundi, there is one power that may intervene, Rwanda. The accusation that Rwanda is funding and training Burundian rebels is questionable, and one which Rwanda emphatically denies; however, a leaked UN report identifies Rwanda as funding and training rebels who are fighting against the Burundian government. Furthermore, this would not be the first time that Rwanda intervened in the internal politics of its neighbors; it intervened significantly in the DRC from 1996-2012. During this intervention, Rwanda backed Tutsi militias against Hutu extremist that fled at the end of the Rwandan genocide. Unfortunately, while Rwanda intervened to protect itself from Hutu extremists, it also plundered the country of its minerals wealth and contributed to the DRC Wars, which was responsible for the deaths of at least 5 million people.

Possible Solutions

The restrained reaction of the international community to the crisis has also limited solutions to it; currently, the mostly likely option would be mediation by outside powers and the two most likely mediators would be Tanzania and South Africa. The option of having South Africa act as mediator is well regarded because it has often acted as mediator in African conflicts including the 1995-2005 Burundian Civil War. However, while South Africa is the natural mediator in this conflict, it is unlikely that it will repeat its efforts to end the crisis because of domestic problems in South African. Where South Africa has largely failed to act as a mediator, Tanzania has stepped up and has offered to mediate. Unfortunately, when it offered to mediate between the opposition and the Burundian government, the government withdrew from mediation in January 2016 because of the attendance of opposition figures that the government considered responsible for the violence.

On the 23 of February 2016, the government changed its mind and did agree to engage in peace talks with the opposition, and as a sign of good faith was prepared to release 2000 prisoners. This step should be welcomed with caution because the Government has agreed to peace talks in the past, and withdrew from them. Also, it is not entirely clear what the government is offering the opposition as they insist that President Nkurunziza is legitimately elected, and unless a compromise can be brokered between the Government and the opposition, the protests will probably not stop. Therefore, the best hope for a resolution is through mediation which, unfortunately, is not very promising.

Zachary Pereira graduated from the Memorial University of Newfoundland with his Bachelor of Arts (Hons) in Political Science and History in 2012. He is currently working on his M.A. in Political Science at York University, Toronto with a focus on international relations and comparative politics.

Image: “Pierre Nkurunziza, President of the Republic of Burundi” (credit: Government of South Africa/Flickr)

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