Why Tiny Burundi Could be a Genesis of Regional Crisis

Last week I wrote a commentary about the worrying circumstances surrounding Burundi’s run-up to the 20 May 2020 elections. Burundi’s tragic history has been mainly blighted my military leadership, identity strife and an exodus of refugees. Melchior Ndadaye’s democratic government in 1993 was swiftly snuffed out by the army, and the ensuing events plunged the country into civil war. From a history of what could be termed as chronic instability, Pierre Nkurunziza’s presidency from 2005 appears comparatively calm. However, it was a calm that was enforced through state-sponsored terror. Suppression of civil rights has been the main feature in that country, perpetrated by the objectionable youth league of the ruling party, the Imbonerakure. The Burundian government has been very contemptuous of international initiatives aimed at helping the stabilization. The latest demonstration of this hostility to international initiatives is the recent expulsion of WHO’s top official in Burundi, Doctor Walter Kazadi Mulombo, the country’s coronavirus coordinator Dr Jean Pierre Mulunda Nkata, communicable diseases head Dr Ruhana Mirindi Bisimwa, and a laboratory expert in the testing for COVID-19, Professor Daniel Tarzy. This, of course, comes at the back of Burundi’s irresponsible handling of crowd control during campaigns. In November 2018, the Chairperson of the African Union Commission, Moussa Faki Mahamat travelled to Arusha, was to provide an opportunity for the Facilitator of the Inter-Burundian Dialogue to submit a report on his efforts at the East African Community Summit. Alas, the proposed Summit was postponed. The anodyne communiqué that was published by the African Union does not convey the urgency and magnitude of the problem at hand. 

The Human Rights Council (HRC) established a Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, to underline the enormity of what is going on in that country. The findings of the Commission assert that Burundi is indeed in political turbulence with primary and full participation and employment of state agencies and personnel. The HRC noted that its entreaty to the Government of Burundi to cooperate fully with the Commission, to authorize it to conduct visits to the country and to provide it with all the information necessary to fulfil its mandate went unanswered. The Human Rights Watch has also been forced to leave Burundi and do its work from outside the country and through surreptitious methods within Burundi. All these factors conspire to make a deadly cocktail of what is likely to follow after the May 20 elections. The Burundian government suggested that election observers intending to monitor the elections will have to be subjected to 14 days of mandatory quarantine. This is laughable on two accounts: First, the 14 days would lapse after the elections have already happened. Second, with its cavalier attitude towards COVID-19, it is ridiculous for the Burundian government to urge international observers to be cautious. The government is all too aware of how high the stakes are in the upcoming election.

The ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, made a terrible and embarrassing blunder of posting a huge crowd of people and claiming that they were its supporters. The party was forced to take the picture down when it was mentioned that the crowd actually went to the opposition’s CNL rally. The misinformation has the markings of a desperate party, acutely aware that it could be on its last days in government, assuming that all things will go fairly during the elections. For its self-serving motives, the ruling party has no interests in relinquishing power to an opposition that will be hard-pressed to tackle the excesses of the Nkurunziza administration. On the other hand, the opposition will likely reject any result that might be in favour of the ruling party. If Burundi’s history is anything to go by, the probable post-election deadlock is likely to engulf the entire country in violence. It is noteworthy that the main contenders both identify are Hutu. This is cardinal in a country where ethnic salience has been powerful enough to disrupt national leadership and stability. However, that the main contenders belong to the majority tribe will have even far-reaching consequences should internecine conflict ensue. 

In the midst of all this volatility, the AU appears to be prostrate. Tiny as it is, Burundi has the effect of destabilising the entire East Africa. Should violence ensue, which country in East Africa is prepared to take the inevitable droves of refugees from a country whose response to the coronavirus pandemic has been callous, to put it politely? The AU should be firm in helping to guide Burundi to stability in these troubled times. The situation already appears to be almost too late, and hence the AU might have lost its time for an effective initiative. However, a strong statement, from the AU, expressing concern about how Burundi is handling both the campaign and the coronavirus, could send a good salvo to Nkurunziza and his underlings. In the meantime, it would also be advisable to put AU forces on standby because things might just go ugly in Burundi. 

Emmanuel Matambo is a Senior Researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS0

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