A failed coup and a president embarking on his third term in office in Burundi have escalated violence in the country. The African Union (AU) has said that there may be “catastrophic consequences” for Burundi and the region if political differences are not resolved peacefully.
Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the country as a result of the crisis, but fleeing to a neighbouring African country may prove to be another problem as refugee camps in the neighbouring Tanzania cannot accommodate the huge inflow of asylum seekers.
Simon Allison, a foreign correspondent for The Guardian and the Daily Maverick says Burundi is extremely worrying at the moment as the situation in the region is deteriorating.
“It is something that we have been keeping our eye on for a long time as journalists and civil society, ever since the president of Burundi decided to announce that he will run for a third term in office,” Allison explained.
President Pierre Nkurunziza, a 51-year-old former sports teacher and born-again Christian, was a Hutu rebel leader during the civil war. The war pitted rebels from the majority Hutu people against an army dominated by the minority Tutsi.
In 2015, Nkurunziza was controversially nominated by his party for a third term in office. Supporters and opponents of Nkurunziza disagreed as to whether it was legal for him to run again, and protests followed.
Thousands initially protested against the president and opposed his re-election in a disputed July vote. Now some have formed vigilante units, coming out at night in tracksuits and jeans, clutching AK-47 rifles as they patrol. Nkurunziza won the July presidential elections despite deadly violence and boycott by the opposition parties and civil society groups.
Allison says that this re-election violated the terms of Burundi’s constitution and a peace deal that ended a long running civil war.
“Ever since Nkurunziza decided to run for office again and won the election (although it was marred by an opposition boycott) the country has been very unstable and there have been incidents of violence,” Allison went further.
A 13 May coup attempt in Burundi led by Major-General Godefroid Niyombare collapsed after 48 hours. But the fact that key military units remained loyal to President Pierre Nkurunziza has not solved the crisis over his push to win a third five-year term in power.
“There has been a lot of political instability even within the government and over the last few weeks we have seen the violence intensifying,” Allison continued.
“We have seen more people rounded up by the government security forces and we are not too sure what has happened to them; we have also seen a lot of unexplained deaths on the streets of Bujumbura.”
“People are being gunned down, some of them in the political opposition and some of them are not in the political opposition so perhaps there is an element of random violence as well,” Allison stated.
There is also a fear that Burundi’s ethnic divisions in particular between the Hutu’s and the Tutsi’s may exacerbate the conflict and turn into something bigger.
The region remains haunted by the 1994 genocide in next-door Rwanda, in which 800,000 people, mostly members of the Tutsi minority and moderates among majority Hutus, were massacred.
Western powers say it must not be repeated in Burundi, which has the same ethnic mix.
“A lot of people have warned about the Rwandan genocide repeating itself in Burundi although I think that that is an exaggeration,” Allison expressed.
“If you look at the make-up of the various sides in this conflict you will see that each of the sides has elements of Hutu’s and Tutsi’s in there so to describe it as an ethnic conflict is I think disingenuous.”
Burundi’s government has dismissed suggestions of a new war and has described its armed opponents as “terrorists”, while police say some “armed criminals” come out at night.
Hundreds of thousands of people have fled the conflict into neighbouring African countries and NGOs particularly in Tanzania are struggling to keep up with the number of people fleeing from the violence.
“The situation in Tanzania is especially bad; international NGOs in Tanzania that are running refugee camps have said that these camps are at a straining point they are about to burst with the continued refugees coming in everyday,” Allison added.
“They simply cannot cope, they cannot provide enough food, they cannot provide enough medical services and they cannot provide sufficient security; there is a real danger that refugees are fleeing from the frying pan into the fire.”
Thus, citizens fleeing from Burundi are headed towards a similar situation in terms of food and physical security. Refugee camps are not equipped to handle the influx and the refugees will suffer as a result thereof.
Allison adds that in terms of human rights violations there isn’t a clear picture of what is occurring in the rural areas. Many journalists that are in Burundi have not made it past the capital Bujumbura.
“We are not seeing what is happening in the rural area, but in terms of human rights violations we can see the violations of freedom of speech, violations of the opposition, violations of freedom of movement and we are seeing extra judicial killings that are happening,” Allison explained.
“It really is a very messy situation.”
When it comes to media coverage of the crisis in Burundi, Allison says that Burundi is a tiny country in east Africa that most people outside of the region have never heard of.
“It’s very hard to get their attention and even when you do publish a story about Burundi we can see from our statistics that very few people actually read about it,” Allison continued.
“So it’s more about people actively being interested in this conflict than about a lack of media coverage.” VOC