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Civil War: Unlikely in Burundi

While the number of Burundians fleeing south toward Tanzania continues to rise, members of the ruling party uphold their commitment to public works projects every Saturday morning. Pictured here is construction of the Kugasaka stadium in Ngozi.

By Roland Rugero

Jacqueline Hakizimana was a civil servant and member of the Imbonerakure, the youth league of the ruling party (CNDD-FDD) in her native Burundi. Last week, she was raped and murdered in Musaga—her tongue cut off, her eyes gouged out—for her political affiliations.

Unfortunately, this is a story that will never get past the international media noise on the Burundian crisis. Her terrible fate doesn’t fit into the scripted narrative that positions the “armed and blood-thirsty” Imbonerakure on one side and the “innocent and unarmed” opposition youth on the other. Often the youth of CNDD-FDD are slaughtered, just like those who opposed a third term by sitting President Pierre Nkurunziza. Innocents are mowed down by the bullets of the police or blown to pieces by a grenade thrown to instill fear.

And while this recent violence is rather ominous, the peasantry has no desire for a new war. They know that they’ll pay the ultimate price, being caught between multiple conflicts and obliged to farm not only to survive, but to supply food for those who wield the weapons. To date, more than 200,000 people have fled Burundi, swelling an already large refugee population. Those that remain have joined local security committees, which work with the army, police, and local administration, having adopted a survival logic of remaining quiet and holding on. 

As several citizens in the countryside explain, this conflict is an internal battle among the Abategetsi, or those who have power, all of whom are looking to claim for themselves their share of “something to eat.” In this telling, a captivating image emerges in which the struggle over the third term is seen as a conflict between elite “eaters” looking to replace Nkurunziza at the table while fighting amongst themselves over the remaining bits of food.

The Burundian crisis is thus experienced as a confrontation driven by the elites—those who know how to speak French and converse with the whites, who own cars and handle the large BIF 10,000 bills. In short, it is a conflict about the interests of less than 2 percent of the Burundian population.

If the security crisis stays confined to Bujumbura and does not spread to the country’s interior, it isn’t for lack of trying. Rather it’s because the rural population in its vast majority is firmly opposed to it. As one taxi-moto driver in Ngozi told me a few weeks ago, “The elites need to find their own solutions to the problems that they cause, without making us, the people of the hills, suffer.”

But it’s not just the countryside holding the capital back from the brink of war. The elites made a miscalculation, relying too heavily on schisms within the army and police force to depose Nkurunziza after his inauguration. However, recent appointments made within the military hierarchy, including the removal of senior officers involved in last May’s coup and the presidential tour of military and police-controlled regions of the country, demonstrate that the state has successfully captured the army and police, consolidating its leadership over both institutions.

With open rebellion no longer seen as a viable option, urban violence remains the main method for exerting force on the government. Insecurity in Bujumbura has not only led to an exodus of expatriates and NGOs, who fuel the local economy—contributing 55 percent of the nation’s output— but has also drastically reduced the amount of Burundian currency circulating in the market. The result is that the Fbu has decreased in value, increasing inflation and severely restricting the ability of the landlocked country to import goods. This internal pressure has the most prominent weight in pushing the government towards negotiations.

As peace negotiations are approaching, relations between the Burundian government and its traditional allies, like the United States, remained strained, leaving a void for other countries to fill. The U.S. Special Envoy to the African Great Lakes Region left Bujumbura in the beginning of November without meeting with the Burundian head of state. A few days later, however, Nkurunziza received with smiles the Special Envoy of his counterpart in Kenya, followed shortly after by the new president of the Peacebuilding Consolidation Burundi Configuration to the U.N., the U.N. Under-Secretary General, and finally the Special Envoy of the Chinese government to Africa.

The ruling party also sought to isolate Belgium, launching a barrage of attacks against the former colonial power—which provides asylum for many of Burundi’s biggest opposition leaders—in November. It also wanted to prevent Belgium from playing a major rule in the forthcoming European Union-Burundi dialogues. And if the Netherlands assuming leadership of the dialogue is any indication, the Burundi government has succeeded.

Despite this forthcoming dialogue, the crisis still remains—and Burundi’s youth stand to lose the most, regardless of their political affiliations. Rather than contemplating the future of their country or their professional lives, they are once again besieged by ideological antagonisms fueled by fears of the past, re-militarized, and reduced to thinking in confrontational terms. Even if the recent warnings of genocide are slowly fading away, wounded memories are still awake.

In Bujumbura, there are neighborhoods that young people can no longer enter, depending on being pro-Nkurunziza or anti-third term. Given that the youth comprise two-thirds of Burundi’s population, they must be considered in forthcoming negotiations if a lasting and sustainable peace is to come to Burundi. 

*****

*****

Roland Rugero is a Burundian writer and journalist. 

[Photo provided by Roland Rugero]

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