Civil unrest in Burundi threatens regional stability

Pierre Nkurunziza, President of Burundi, captured at the 2008 World Economic Forum in Africa. He plans to run for a third term in office. (Courtesy of World Economic Forum/Eric Miller)

The African nation of Burundi is small enough to fit into the state of Texas 25 times, but it’s currently drawing increasing attention from not only its African neighbors, but alsofrom the global community.

Civil unrest is swiftly growing in the wake of the last round of presidential elections, and promises to spiral out of control and into a full-scale civil war if not contained.

Moreover, Burundi is home to Hutu and Tutsi populations, and ethnic tensions are still high after decades of ethnically-driven conflict and genocide.

If the country is thrown into chaos, as some fear it might be, these tensions could break free of the constraints imposed by peace talks and U.N. interventions.

The civil unrest began last April, when the ruling CNDD-FDD party nominated incumbent president Pierre Nkurunziza as its candidate.

This meant that Nkurunziza would be running for a third term as president, directly contradicting the country’s recently written constitution which imposes a two term limit on the position.

The announcement sparked waves of protest, which were exacerbated by a ruling by the country’s supreme court a month later that this was indeed constitutional.

The ruling was tainted by the flight from the country of its vice-president, who went on to report that many members of the court agreed because of external pressure.

Since then, there has been a failed coup and countless protests and riots in the street.

As protesters have stepped up their activities, however, the government has stepped up its oppression in turn.

As the civil unrest intensifies, more than 230,000 people have fled Burundi, many to the neighboring countries of Tanzania and Rwanda.

The reasons for the massive displacement are clear: more than 400 citizens have been killed in the chaos since Nkurunziza announced he would be running for a third term.

Many were protestors or activists who were eliminated by police forces.

The spate of deaths and oppression has worried outside observers, including several human rights groups.

The International Federation for Human Rights and other organizations are increasingly alarmed by the transgressions committed by the Nkurunziza government, including the alleged kidnapping of 300 young men and the execution of half of them.

Worse, the incumbent government is beginning to lean more and more on ethnic rivalry to maintain legitimacy and stay in power.

In a strategy reminiscent of Rwanda in 1994, the Nkurunziza government is focusing on the Hutu-Tutsi split to support itself.

The existing ethnic tension in the country already made the situation volatile, and now the government apparently stoking the fire of hatred has increased regional tension and the worries of neighboring African states.

The African Union (AU), an international organization of African states modeled after the European Union and the U.N., has stepped up to the plate, announcing over the break that the general assembly approved the use of 5,000 African Union soldiers to “keep the peace” in Burundi.

This decisive action by the AU indicates the severity of the situation, at least in the eyes of Burundi’s fellow African nations.

Despite the fact that Nkurunziza has promised to go to war against the peacekeeping force if the AU follows through, members of the AU are maintaining their support for the use of the force. The next step for the AU is to get the mission approved by the U.N. Security Council and then to deploy the forces.



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