TFF PressInfo # 320 – Burundi: Denying or hoping won’t do

Jan Oberg

By Jan Oberg

Virtually everyone with an expertise in humanitarian crisis has warned about the unfolding catastrophe these very days in Burundi – the head of UNHCR, former UN Humanitarian chief Jan Egeland, the UN Secretary-General and his envoy, the International Crisis Group, specialists on Burundi, human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch, civil society organisations inside Burundi, etc. TFF did it in PressInfo 319 of April 29, 2015.

Everyone who cares will see all the red lamps and hear the alarm bells. We have a history of genocide in this country and neighbouring Rwanda just a few years ago. There is something to build our early warnings on. But who is listening? Who is taking action, serious political action?

There have been meetings in the capital Bujumbura, regional leaders, the UN Envoy and a US Ambassador have met with the president and put pressure, urged, expressed concern or appealed. Unfortunately, it seems to be a display of powerlessness and lack of real political will.

This tired diplomacy might even convince the Burundian president that he can safey continue his stubborn policies because – and that’s his advantage – the country called Burundi is of so little real interest to anyone that those who could do something turn their heads and pretend they just don’t see.

We may of course sit and wait. Hoping it will all miraculously be good again tomorrow. Here are some more or less realistic hopes:

1. Ideally we could hope that the accelerating citizens protest will remain non-violent. The only domestic way to diffuse the tension and oust the present leadership of Burundi would be to create a full mobilisation of virtually all Burundians for an exclusively non-violent struggle – e.g. denial of co-operation, employees not coming to government offices in the morning, police and military siding with the citizens and refusing to shoot at them, etc.

But this is wishful thinking. There is too much pent-up frustration all over the country, particularly among the younger people and civil society organisations. The Nkurunziza regime has failed miserably to provide for basic need satisfaction and keeping any of its many economic reform promises. Anger is widespread and intense.

For some kind of new social contract to emerge, too many have already been killed and imprisoned by the regime’s police. The ruling party’s youth wing – the Imbonerakure – terrorise the protesters (who are also not always non-violent). Too many media have been closed.

A non-violent kind of revolution would also have to be based on a strong, united political opposition with a new program and a trustworthy, experienced leader(ship). As far as I am informed that also does not exist.

The discipline and self-control required for a nation-wide non-violence and civil disobedience campaign thus cannot be expected at this point.

2. It might be hoped that, as the ruling party’s repression increases and more and more people get killed, both the ruling party and government will consider alternatives to Nkurunziza’s leadership and his power base erode. Could happen but what would the price be?

3. A military coup. That is not unlikely. There are conflicts within the military and between that and the police. But one wonders what would be the long-term consequences of a military takeover. Would it be any better in the longer run for the 8-9 million Burundians? Would it be better able to solve problems than the present regime? How long would it hold power before opening the road to civil society, elections and democratisation?

4. A military intervention by Rwanda to restore law and order in Burundi (the two were once one country). The international community would officially deplore it and protest but hardly much more. It would relieve it of the duty to do something and put its own young people in harms way. And Rwanda and its President Kagame has – quite enigmatically – remained a darling of the West.

5. Other possibilities could be thought of: A strong regional multinational pressure backed up by the threat of military intervention; a fast mediation effort by the African Union – or the President decides to flee the country when he sees the writing on the wall.

Finally there a genuine international humanitarian intervention with civilian and military means. That will be described in a future PressInfo.

Denial, hopes or wishful thinking won’t bring peace, development and democracy to the Burundians.

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