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Burundi

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Burundi: The Next Genocide?

The good news is that the killing in Burundi has not yet grown into a civil war like the one that killed 300,000 people in 1993-2005, let alone a genocide like the one that killed 800,000 people in neighbouring Rwanda in 1994. The bad news is that Burundi is getting there.

It’s hard to speak well of Sepp Blatter, the disgraced former head of Fifa, the international football federation. But Africa would owe him a large debt of gratitude if he had persuaded Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza not to seek a third term, and instead to accept a job as Fifa’s “ambassador for football” to the world.

When the story came out recently in Blatter’s autobiography, the Swiss foreign ministry (which asked Blatter to make the offer) explained that “The intention was to contribute to a peaceful solution in order to prevent the current crisis in Burundi.”

It might even have worked. Nkurunziza is a keen footballer, and he certainly has put aside enough money to retire on. But he chose to stay on and run for a third term, and started Burundi on the road back down to Hell.

African presidents suffer from two besetting sins. One is the belief that they are irreplaceable: almost two-thirds of African countries had two-term presidential limits in their constitutions by 2000, but since then ten of them have seen attempts by their presidents to remove the limit. The most recent was Rwanda, where President Paul Kagame’s last permitted term will now end in 2034.

But Pierre Nkurunziza’s excuse was particularly pathetic. He became president at the end of the civil war in 2005, when the peace was precarious. There was no time for a presidential election, so he was elected to the presidency by a parliamentary vote.

On the basis of that, Nkurunziza began claiming last year that his first term shouldn’t count towards his constitutional two-term limit because he was chosen by parliament and not by the people. Even Zimbabwe’s President Robert Mugabe (seven terms and counting) saw the humour in that. “They say the first term was not a real term,” he said at an African Union summit last June, “but you were there for five years!”

Burundi’s Constitutional Court accepted Nkuruniza’s claim, however, as it would have been hazardous to the members’ health to do otherwise. (One of the judges then fled the country, saying that they had all been bullied and threatened into giving that judgement.) The opposition parties all boycotted the election last July, so Nkurunziza “won” – and by then the level of violence was rising rapidly.

The killing started after a failed military coup that tried to stop the sham election, and the reported death toll is now around 400. The known victims are mostly political activists and ordinary citizens murdered by the police in Bujumbura, the capital, but the real total of the killings must be far higher. Rural killings are rarely reported, but a quarter-million people have fled the country in the past year and now live in refugee camps in neighbouring countries.

The one consolation in this dreadful situation until recently was that it wasn’t a tribal confrontation. In both Rwanda’s genocide and Burundi’s civil war the majority Hutus (85 percent of the population) were on one side and formerly dominant Tutsi minority on the other. Since the civil war, however, Burundi’s army has been evenly divided between the two ethnic groups, and the opposition groups have also included both Hutus and Tutsis.

The other besetting sin of African presidents, unfortunately, is that if they come from the biggest tribe (as they most often do), when they get into deep political trouble their default solution is to fall back on tribal loyalties. That is what Nkurunziza is doing now. The army is being purged of Tutsis, and the very same language used by the Hutus in the run-up to the Rwanda genocide is now being used by Nkurunziza’s Hutu backers in Burundi.

Révérien Ndikuriyo, the president of the Burundian senate, has been referring to the regime’s opponents as “cockroaches” (the same word used for Tutsis by the Hutu extremists in Rwanda). He has even called on the government’s supporters to “start work” (“kora”), which was the code-word used in Rwanda for the launch of the 1994 genocide.

Nkurunziza is trying to turn a political confrontation he might lose into an ethnic conflict that he could win, but the cost would be another genocide. The future of an entire country of ten million people is being put at risk by his personal ambition.

The African Union offered to send 5,000 soldiers to help quell the violence, but backed down when Nkurunziza objected. There are 19,000 United Nations peacekeepers just across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo, but the political will to send them in is lacking.

So far the opposition parties (which are, of course, mostly Hutu) are resisting Nkurunziza’s attempts to scapegoat the Tutsis, but in the world’s poorest country many ordinary Hutus will be tempted to go along with the regime’s lies in order to steal their Tutsi neighbours’ land. We may be weeks away from Africa’s next genocide.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 3, 12, and 14. (“When…Burundi”; “Révérien…genocide”; and “The African…lacking”)

Gwynne Dyer is an independent journalist whose articles are published in 45 countries.

Burundi and Term Limits

Part of the army rebelled in Burundi last week, not to overthrow the constitution but to save it. The revolt failed after two days of shooting in the capital, Bujumbura, and the generals who led it surrendered. “I hope they won’t kill us,”said the coup leader, Major-General Godefroid Niyombare. But like much else in Burundi, that remains up in the air.

Burundi, a small, densely populated country (10 million people) in the centre of Africa, has had a relatively good ten years. After a 12-year civil war that killed 300,000 people, a deal was struck at Arusha in 2005 that made the leader of the Hutu rebel group, Pierre Nkurunziza, the president, but divided the army equally between Hutus and Tutsis

It was a messy compromise, since Hutus are 80 percent of the population and Tutsis only 15 percent. However, it avoided the much worse carnage in neighbouring Rwanda, a country with the same ethnic mix where 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in three months in 1994, so it was worth it.

Nkurunziza was appointed president of Burundi for five years (there was no time for an election at the end of a civil war), but he ran successfully for a second term in the 2010 election. The trouble started when he announced early this year that he intended to run for a third term as president in the election due this June. The new (2005) constitution says that presidents may only serve for two terms.

The two-term limit became standard in the new democracies that spread across Africa in the 1990s, and by ten years ago 34 African countries had put it into their constitutions. It is an attempt to end the “Big Man” phenomenon in African politics and make peaceful political change possible, but it does not always work.

In the last quarter-century, 18 African presidents have reached the two-term limit. Only eight of them stepped down without first trying to amend the constitution and abolish or change the term limit. As President Mathieu Kerekou of Benin remarked ruefully: “If you don’t leave power, power will leave you.” But ten other presidents did try to amend the constitution in order to stay past two terms, and seven of them succeeded.

Moreover, all the presidents who managed to change the constitution also won the subsequent election, most notably Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, who famously said in 1986 that “No African president should be in power for more than ten years.” Museveni has now been in power for 29 years, and is preparing for the next election.

So the glass is at best half-full, although long-serving President Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso was chased from power by popular protests last year when he tried to amend the constitution to give himself another term. But here comes Pierre Nkurunziza, who cannot bring himself to stop being president after only two terms.

Burundi is exactly the wrong place to do this sort of thing. The country’s relative peace and modest prosperity depend on everybody being confident that the inter-ethnic killing is really over. That in turn depends on everybody observing the terms of the power-sharing deal between Hutus and Tutsis worked out at Arusha ten years ago.

Nkurunziza was already showing signs of dissatisfaction with the deal. Last year, he tried and failed to change the part of the constitution that guarantees positions for the minority Tutsi group in all government institutions. His party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure, has recently been given weapons, and its resemblance to the Interahamwe militia that did much of the killing in Rwanda makes many people uneasy.

The first step in his plan for holding onto power was to get the Constitutional Court to decide that he had not really served two terms, because for the first term he was appointed by parliament, not elected by the people. The Constitutional Court agreed – although one of its judges then fled the country and said that they had all been bullied and threatened into giving that judgement.

Last month the chair of the African Union Commission, Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, questioned the decision by the Burundi court, saying the Arusha peace accord clearly stated a president should not seek a third term. More recently the African Union called for the postponement of the Burundi election, currently scheduled for June.

And of course the protesters have been out in the streets of Bujumbura every day, although at least 20 have been killed already. Even after the failed coup (which they deny any connection with) some of them are still going out to protest. But Burundi is clearly drifting back towards a civil war, if not an actual genocide. More than 50,000 people fled the country just last week in fear of what is to come.

The time to put pressure on Nkurunziza to back off and obey the law is now; later may be too late. It should come above all from African countries and institutions, but it certainly wouldn’t hurt if the major providers of aid to Burundi also made their views known loudly and clearly.
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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 7 and 13. (“Moreover…election”; and “And of course…come”)

The Next Genocide

8 May 2003

The Next Genocide

By Gwynne Dyer

There may be another genocide coming in Africa, this time in Burundi, and the most frustrating thing about it is that you can’t even pin the blame for it on some monster of wickedness. It’s just the situation.

Burundi got a new president recently. On 30 April Domitien Nzayizeye, a member of the Hutu majority, accepted the presidency from Pierre Buyoya, the Tutsi army officer who has ruled the country since 1996. Former South African president Nelson Mandela showed up in person to bless the transfer of power, and a 3,000-strong force is being sent by the African Union to keep the peace. But there is no peace to keep: last month a hundred rockets rained down on the lakeside capital, Bujumbura, from the hills behind, and the massacres out in the villages continued at about the usual rate.

Burundi has a past only slightly less bloody than its twin to the north, Rwanda, where 800,000 members of the Tutsi minority and Hutus thought to be friendly towards them were slaughtered by a Hutu-led extremist government in 1994. It has exactly the same population mix, and just as in Rwanda the Belgian colonial authorities played a game of divide-and-rule, transforming the traditional patron-client relationship between the pastoral Tutsis and the Hutu farmers into a modern and far nastier system of ethnic privilege. Then they departed, leaving the 15 percent minority of Tutsis in charge of both countries.

There were Hutu rebellions in both countries, but in Burundi the Tutsi, who have a stranglehold on the army, managed to hang onto power. In 1972 Tutsi extremists massacred up to 250,000 Hutus in an attempt to wipe out the entire educated Hutu elite in Burundi, and since then guerilla war has been almost constant in the countryside. The Hutu are filled with mistrust and bitterness, which makes the Tutsi minority all the more reluctant to relinquish power, and even clever people with good intentions cannot break the vicious circle.

Major Pierre Buyoya is such a person, and the coup he carried out in 1987 was meant to solve the problem. He actually gave the country multi-party democracy for a little while, and a Hutu, Melchior Ndadaye, was elected president in 1992. But the Hutu guerillas never came in from the hills, the Tutsis never let go of the army — and in 1993 Ndadaye was assassinated by a rebel group of Tutsi paratroopers.

Buyoya managed to stabilise the situation, and another Hutu was elected president of Burundi — but he was almost immediately killed in Rwanda, shot down together with the Rwandan president by a surface-to-air missile. The Rwandan regime blamed the downing of the presidential aircraft on Tutsi rebels and began the great genocide of 1994, but the missile was almost certainly fired by Hutu extremists in the Rwandan army precisely in order to provide a pretext for a massacre of the Tutsis in the country.

Another Hutu, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, became president of Burundi in 1994, but the Hutu guerillas out in the hills saw him as just a Tutsi puppet and escalated their attacks. The Tutsi-run army retaliated with counter-massacres of Hutu villagers, and by 1996 the UN special rapporteur for human rights was talking about a “genocide by attrition” in Burundi — so Buyoya seized power again. He never fully got the army back under control (there were two coup attempts against him in 2001, and village massacres are still commonplace), but he is trying once again to hand over power to the majority.

Buyoya understands that Burundi’s future, and the safety of his own Tutsi people, can only be assured in the long run by a democratic system that grants the majority full rights. His problem with the Hutu presidents he boosted into office in the mid-90s was that he had to choose people moderate enough to escape a veto by the Tutsi army officers, who see themselves as the final bulwark against the kind of genocide that their fellow-Tutsi suffered in Rwanda. Unfortunately, he has the same problem again with Nzayizeye.

Pierre Nkurunziza, leader of the Forces for the Defence of Democracy, the biggest Hutu rebel group, rejects Nzayizeye as a mere Tutsi puppet: “This change is purely cosmetic. How do you expect us to give up ten years of effort for nothing?” The FDD is no longer observing the ceasefire that it signed last December, and insists that it will only suspend its attacks if the Tutsi-dominated army disarms. Given what happened to the Tutsis in Rwanda, that is not going to happen.

Nobody is being unreasonable here. Buyoya is right to keep trying to hand over power to Hutus, and Nkurunziza is right to say that the change is cosmetic so long as the army remains Tutsi. Even the Tutsi army officers are just trying to protect their own people in a terrifying situation they did not create. The new African Union is meeting its first challenge well — but it may all be in vain.

Most rural people in Burundi live in perpetual fear and misery, and the FDD is rapidly re-arming. It may soon be a match for the army in both firepower and discipline. “If the rebels launch a total assault (the Tutsi elite) would be completely cut off from Rwanda and Tanzania,” said a Western analyst based in Bujumbura. “This is the plan. It is a genocidal agenda.”

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To shorten to 725 words, omit paragraphs 6 and 10. (“Buyoya…country”;and “Nobody…vain”)