With the recent mass political unrest and failed military coup against Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza--after he announced his run for an extraconstitutional third term--the African Union along with the United Nations appealed for ethnic harmony there. This addressed fears that weeks of political unrest could prompt another round of fight between Hutus and Tutsis in the center of Africa’s Great Lakes region.
The conflict started April 26 after Burundi’s Constitutional Court ruled in support of President's Nkurunziza’s decision to overrule Burundi’s constitution and stand for a third term. There were reports that judges were intimidated. As a result of the upheaval, tens of thousands fled the country.
His critics say Nkurunziza’s attempt to defy the constitution endanger a peace deal brokered to keep ethnic tensions in check since the end of the civil war in 2005. The bloody conflict between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi since have all but disappeared, although political parties still have distinctly ethnic features. The president is Hutu, most of the opposition leaders are Tutsis, and they have seized on the ethnic divisions and distorted them into something far more complex.
Burundi emerged from a brutal civil war a decade ago but according to United Nations there are fears that the crisis right now could reignite the frictions that existed during the civil war. Burundi has experienced 40 years of armed violence and civil war since gaining independence from Belgium in 1962. The United Nations along with Amnesty International estimated that 300,000 people died in the conflict in Burundi, which has the same ethnic mixture as neighboring Rwanda, where 800,000, most of them Tutsis and moderate Hutus, were killed in a 1994 genocide. It’s clear that political instability and deep rooted unresolved grievances continue to threaten inter-ethnic cooperation and security in the country and the Great Lakes in general.
So what is behind the current political instability in Burundi? Even though the conflict is based on President Nkurunziza’s decision to campaign for a third term, the conflict has an economic dimension. Many Tutsis argue about the lack of access to job opportunities and resources, and their grievances cut across the ethnic divide. It’s well documented that unequal distribution of resources perpetuates dominance and creates violence as seen in many African conflicts. Wars arise from distributional conflict; achieving political stability will require the establishment of institutional mechanisms that correct the legacy of inequality, and afford parity access to economic and political power across the ethnic groups in Burundi.
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Failure to find solutions to Burundi’s political instability will have devastating social, political, and economic effects on the Great Lakes region, an area that is already worn out by conflict and poverty despite—some say because of—an abundance of valuable natural resources.
There is, indeed, reason for seeing Burundi as a catastrophe in the making. It has a vicious cycle of intergroup violence, with militias pre-empting politics and crowds of refugees on the move. The conflict in Burundi could metastasize to other areas of the Great Lakes, which could throw the entire region into danger yet again.
The African Union, in concert with the United Nations, must spearhead solid multilateral conflict resolution mechanisms to avoid the spillover effects. If not, ethnic conflicts are contagious in the Great Lakes and can rampage virally across borders.
In light of this conflict, I hope that the international community will increase its efforts to avert disaster in Burundi. Already the EU has pulled election observers and the Catholic Church has announced it will not assist, as it usually does, in organizing and monitoring the election. Leaders in the Great Lakes region should take a hard look at their actions and policy choices. Emphasis here should be on discouraging corruption, embracing ethnic harmony, transparency, and good governance.
It is therefore important that if President Pierre Nkurunziza is serious about building peace, he must stop repression of opposition figures and tolerate dissent—or he should face serious personal economic, social, and travel sanctions from the international community. He must also implement constructive methods of handling ethnic differences, engineer institutions that uproot the legacy of discrimination and promote equal opportunity for social mobility for all members of Burundi’s ethnic groups. The UN and African Union stand ready to help.