The Time is Now for a United Nations Peacekeeping Force in Burundi
Over the past two years, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza has survived a coup attempt, purged his government of dissenting voices, and won reelection to a third term after disregarding his country’s constitution and brutally repressing his political opposition. Largely as a result of his increasingly brazen disregard for law and order, his country has suffered through a period of violence not seen since the Burundian Civil War, which lasted from 1993 to 2006.
Though troubling throughout, Burundi’s tumultuous stretch has recently grown more alarming still. Unable to fully extinguish a surprisingly resilient rebellion, Nkurunziza and his allies have begun to strategically portray the ongoing crisis as a struggle between Hutus—who currently control the government—and Tutsis in an attempt to once again divide the country along ethnic lines. Earlier this year, in a speech that could easily have come from the Hutu Power movement in the lead up to the Rwandan genocide, head of the Burundian Senate and Nkurunziza ally Révérien Ndikuriyo was caught on tape condoning the mass murder of his opponents: “On this issue, you have to pulverize, you have to exterminate—these people are only good for dying. I give you this order, go!” History has shown that ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis can quickly spiral into mass murder and even genocide. Dialogue alone is no longer sufficient to solve the current political crisis, and thus the UNSC must act immediately to deploy a peacekeeping force to Burundi.
In situations like this, the international community would ordinarily turn first to a regional security body—in this case the African Union (AU)—for a swift and decisive solution. Indeed, President Nkurunziza has long had strained relationships with many regional leaders, who have proven far more willing to force him out of power than they have been to act in other similar cases. The AU has been one of the most consistently critical voices of Nkurunziza’s repressive regime and has attempted (albeit unsuccessfully) to deploy a peacekeeping force to stabilize the situation. Unfortunately, the fractured nature of the AU and its limited military capacity have prevented it from muscling Nkurunziza out of power or protecting his opponents from further persecution.
Due to this lack of regional peace-building capacity, the task of stabilizing Burundi rests squarely with the UNSC. Luckily, it need not look far for a model peacekeeping force: the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA), which paired with a UN-backed transitional government together rescued CAR from near-complete anarchy. Earlier this year, in the culmination of a two-year long effort, this joint body oversaw the nation’s first (largely) peaceful presidential and legislative elections in decades.
Admittedly, the crisis in CAR differs substantially from the one facing Burundi. France, the UN, and the African Union intervened in CAR, a mostly failed state where a large portion of the population had been displaced by fighting between Christian and Muslim militias. In Burundi, on the other hand, the political apparatus has not yet deteriorated to the same extent, the root of violence is ethnic rather than religious, and atrocities are being perpetrated by the government rather than by nonstate actors. Fundamentally, however, the conflicts share key characteristics, not least of which is that the hypothetical mandate of a peacekeeping force in Burundi would mirror MINUSCA’s principal mission: to protect civilians from a potential genocide and help establish the conditions necessary for a stable political transition. There is little doubt that a UN force backed by the French, Belgian and U.S. governments would be able to assert control over the Burundian military and the Hutu militias backing it. In fact, absent a full-blown intervention by a single external power (as occurred in 2013 when France alone ousted Islamic militants from northern Mali), there exists no other actor with the adequate economic, military, and logistical capacities to intervene in Burundi without plunging it further into chaos.
Finally, though it is often difficult to drum up the political will necessary for such an intervention, it should be noted that legitimate precedent for it exists. The last Burundian Civil War only ended after the UNSC brokered a ceasefire between the Tutsi military forces and the Hutu rebel groups that led to a new constitution and the parliamentary and presidential elections that first installed Nkurunziza in the nation’s highest office. Now, after two terms in office, Nkurunziza himself is attempting to inflame and exploit the same ethnic divisions that preceded his rise in order to maintain his grip on power. Unless the UNSC intervenes, the ethnic strife that it worked so hard to end in 2005 may continue to worsen, ultimately exploding into full-blown genocide.