Beginning on April 26, 2015, the small central African nation of Burundi was plunged into its most profound political crisis since the end of a civil war in 2005 that left more than 300,000 dead. The turmoil was sparked by a political announcement from President Pierre Nkurunziza that he would run for a third term in office, a bid many civilians and oppositionists understood as unconstitutional.
With approval from Burundi’s constitutional court, however, the president’s reelection in July 2015 has led to sustained street demonstrations by opposition forces in the capital, an attempted coup d’état, and a cycle of insecurity, fear, human rights abuses, and targeted killings. More than a year later, the political crisis shows few signs of abating. More than 250,000 people remain displaced—stripped of their homes, community, and safety—resulting in an increasingly precarious situation that threatens to undermine a decade of peacebuilding.
Burundi’s civil war from 1993 to 2005 was characterized by intercommunal killings. A predominantly Tutsi military battled a constellation of Hutu rebels, and civilians from both groups were targeted solely because of their ethnicity. The civil war was one of the first tests for new approaches to peacebuilding and the Responsibility to Protect following genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
Now at Risk: Ten Years of Peacebuilding
The Arusha Agreements and the constitution, political accords that ended the war and ushered in a peaceful transition, were unique in Africa. They established a set of ethnic quotas for Hutus and Tutsis within the parliament, presidency, security institutions, and the civil service—fostering greater ethnic representation and inclusion within governance structures.
The constitution also represented national consensus, largely forged in the hills by Burundians themselves. During the postwar period, Burundians placed a strong focus on promoting interethnic dialogue and reconciliation, aiming to address the legacy of identity-based violence to prevent future conflict. Through thousands of grassroots dialogues, radio call-in shows, trauma healing, and truth-telling activities, women and men expressed their will to move beyond violence. The peacebuilding process in the decade after the war—up until the present crisis—was all the more remarkable in the context of some of the bleakest poverty on earth.
Food, Prosperity, Opportunity, and Peace
Tragically, the conflict over Nkurunziza’s third term has rocked society and threatens to undermine such significant progress in building peace and resilience among the Burundian people. Four key factors underpin the current crisis, raising the stakes of political competition and creating a context of desperation.
First, Burundi is land scarce yet agriculturally dependent. Hunger is rampant. Roughly the size of Maryland, with a population of six million, Burundi is home to more than 10 million people, almost all of whom are farmers. Even with rich volcanic soil, small plot sizes barely yield enough food for many families. In 2010, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations reported that in some parts of northern Burundi, the average farm fed a family of five for only two or three months out of the year. Looking forward, even under optimistic scenarios by agricultural and climate scientists, childhood malnutrition is likely to remain around 40 percent.
Second, although Burundi has experienced some growth, there was no “peace dividend” that led to greater economic strength after the cessation of violence. From 2006 to 2014, gross domestic product growth rates hovered between 3.5 and 5.5 percent, lower than most of its neighbors and barely exceeding population growth rates between 3 and 3.5 percent. The lack of significant economic growth means there has not been a fundamental transformation of the political economy.
In Burundi, as in many of the surrounding countries, the legacy of colonialism and authoritarian rule have led many to see political patronage and a career in public service as the only means of securing a stable economic future. This view is widespread throughout society and has led many elites to see state capture as central to the political endeavor and the surest path to personal prosperity and security—generally through official corruption, control of state-run enterprises, and patronage.
Third, food insecurity, urbanization, and economic stagnation have had a particular impact on Burundi’s youth. High levels of unemployment, food insecurity, and the lack of skill development form a bleak economic outlook. In March 2015, Search for Common Ground—which focuses on international conflict transformation—documented high levels of concerns among the youth and general public about the relationship between youth unemployment, a perceived increase in criminality, and the risk of manipulation of young people by political actors. A majority of the population—particularly in the capital, Bujumbura—reported not feeling safe to move about their own community.
Fourth, Burundi is landlocked and located in a difficult neighborhood with a long legacy of intermingled armed conflict. It borders the most unstable regions of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where two decades of humanitarian crisis and local-level violence persist. The long history of regional and internal conflict marked by mass violence in the Great Lakes region—including Rwanda, Uganda, Burundi, and the Democratic Republic of Congo—thwarts collective political and security cooperation, fuels mistrust, and has meant that much of the underlying ingredients for violence remain in the forms of recruitment networks, former combatants, illegal trade, and small arms.
Elements for Peace
At the time of this writing, more than a year into the crisis, the East African Community (EAC) is beginning an inter-Burundian dialogue process aimed at addressing political tensions. Yet there is no agreement on the appropriate participants to this process or an agenda for the talks. Without a consensus on these key elements, it is unlikely there will be a speedy solution, even if or when the dialogue begins in earnest.
While European, African, and US policymakers focus on how best to support the EAC mediation at a political level, the process augurs to be a long one. Such international support for a political end to the crisis is useful, but such actors must also provide support to ordinary Burundians and work within the country to address those key factors underlying the instability. Considering Burundians have largely rejected violence, despite the political crisis and attempts at political manipulation, it is a testament to the will of a people who are eager to move beyond a history of violence.
As international attention drifts either to the political process or toward other world crises, key programs are ending. A lack of funding has forced shut long-running initiatives to support nonviolence among youth, address hate speech, increase access to information, and tackle underlying drivers of instability such as land conflict, the truth and reconciliation process, and poverty. To make good on the Responsibility to Protect that guided the early interventions in Burundi and the Great Lakes, the global community must continue to focus on the political, social, and structural elements of the current crisis.
The search for a political solution to the crisis is necessary but must be accompanied by ongoing conflict mitigation, social programs within Burundi, and a long-term commitment to addressing the critical poverty and structural impediments that will continue to drive vulnerability in Burundi and the wider region if left ignored and unaddressed.