If you haven’t heard that there’s a political crisis in Burundi, I’m not surprised. Best known for its recent civil war and tendency to place at the bottom of development indices, the African nation has been mired in political unrest since April, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would seek a third term in office. Many see it as a constitutional violation but, based on a technicality, Nkurunziza has argued that it is not. Burundi has since descended into protest and violence, shattering the tenuous stability the country has enjoyed since the signing of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation agreement in 2000.
The allegiances that divide Burundi’s population are mostly political. Lurking in the background, however, are fears that identity politics will re-emerge, bringing with them the potential for ethnic cleansing. July’s election took place against a background of fleeing refugees, nightly violence in the capital of Bujumbura, and severe media suppression. Facing little opposition, following a boycott of most parties, Nkunurziza’s CNDD-FDD party unsurprisingly won their sought-after third term.
Though the campaign period has concluded, violence persists, and important figures on both sides have been assassinated in recent days. Thousands continue to flee to neighbouring countries, as what began as a national issue has now expanded into a regional crisis. The pressing concerns are: how the international community has and should be responding to the situation, what the ramifications might be if it is left unaddressed, and how this crisis feeds into the debate on African aid and Western intervention on the continent.
The international response to Burundi’s troubles has been lackluster at best. At worst, it feels eerily similar to what preceded the Rwandan genocide of 1994— a cruel irony, as one of the international community’s most outspoken critics at that time is now the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power and the U.S. government, have done little to help the current crisis in Burundi. While the U.S. is monitoring Burundi and has called for calm, it has not followed-through. Like most other Western states, it has responded to the situation chiefly with rhetorical flourishes and a reduction in foreign aid. While Power has previously advocated for a rigorous atrocity-prevention approach, Burundi is barely a blip on the foreign policy radar for the U.S., and will get little in the way of effective support.
Foreign aid and foreign investment account for almost half of Burundi's GDP. Both income sources are threatened by the ongoing unrest. The government in Bujumbura has nevertheless failed to change course, in part because of its increasingly cozy relations with Russia and China. Both of these powers are eager to present themselves as alternatives to Africa’s traditional Western patrons. As powerful international players and affluent financiers, both countries are particularly attractive partners for Burundi. While the West threatens to reduce foreign aid, Russia and China dangle carrots of investment that don’t force the country to abide by Western standards of democratic development or legitimate governance. Their sway at the UN has already benefited the government in Bujumbura, with Moscow and Beijing managing to impede any discussion of an international response to the violence in Burundi. This emergent power dynamic should worry the West, even if Burundi alone is small potatoes. As a major player in the drafting of the 2001 Arusha Agreements, the U.S., in particular, has a stake in the stability of Burundi, if at least to maintain its credibility and keep a foothold in Africa. Chaos and the prospect of genocidal violence has yet to pique America’s interest. Perhaps Russian and Chinese encroachment will.
While currently at a simmer, Burundi and the surrounding region are heating up. Government and rebel forces seem set for a frightful clash, with more targeted rebel activity in recent weeks, and the illegitimate government closing rank behind Nkurunziza. As the situation develops, Rebel activity will become more organized, and the government crackdown increasingly heavy-handed. With rebels recruiting from refugee camps across Burundi’s borders, the situation is on the verge of spawning a regional crisis, which has the potential to enlarge the conflict and provoke local actors and institutions as they become entangled in the upheaval. Worryingly, the long-sought peace of the Arusha Agreements is in imminent danger. It is imperative to prevent a reversion to the horrible events which took place in the country before 2000. The international community— the very architects who established structure through the accords— should now direct due attention, or watch what they built crumble.