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Delaying the elections in Burundi could be the best way to avoid fueling ethnic tensions

Reuters/Goran Tomasevic
Uncertain future
By Omar Mohammed
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

The situation in Burundi is deteriorating drastically with growing fears the government of embattled president Pierre Nkurunziza is trying to divide the country along ethnic lines.

While the protests against Nkurunziza, who comes from the Hutu ethnic group, began in opposition to his pursuit of a third term, the New York Times reports that some government officials are starting to suggest the coup attempt was led by Tutsis. A BBC reporter also tweeted that a government spokesman has implied protests, which continue in Bujumbura today, are happening in Tutsi-dominated areas.

Burundi has been bedeviled by ethnic strife in the past between the Tutsis and the Hutus. The last such conflict lead to more than a decade of fighting that left hundreds of thousands dead. The current crisis has caused the deaths of 20 people with over 100,000 fleeing the country to escape the violence.

And there is growing concern that without serious international intervention things could get even worse.

“It is a very dangerous situation. We’re hearing from a lot of people in the country that they are extremely scared,” Tom Malinowski, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights, and labor told Politico. “This is a country that has experienced mass atrocities and mass killings in the past, and all of the ingredients that experience has taught us to look for…are there.”

In his first public appearance since surviving a coup attempt, president Nkurunziza on Sunday neglected to discuss the crisis. He instead read a statement to the press where he puzzlingly warned his people against an Islamist threat.

It is true that Burundi has sent forces to Somalia as part of the African Union contingent fighting against al-Shabab to help stabilize the country. Yet, there aren’t that many people outside of Nkurunziza’s circle suggesting that the current crisis in Bujumbura is due to the threat of terrorism. All this began after Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term, something the opposition says is against the country’s constitution.

Raising the specter of al-Shabab appears to be a cynical attempt by Nkurunziza to use the national security card to justify what could be brutal efforts to suppress the protests against him. Recriminations have already started, with the sacking of the defense and foreign ministers.

Regional leaders are calling on Nkurunziza to postpone the elections scheduled for July. A spokesman to Kenya’s president Uhuru Kenyatta told Reuters that he and his counterparts in the region believe that a “conducive environment” is needed for the polls to go ahead. South Africa’s president Jacob Zuma reiterated this sentiment, following a summit in Angola with the Great Lakes leaders. In a statement, Zuma also said that a delegation of East African community leaders will travel to Bujumbura to try and calm the situation. He did not specify when.

Burundi, a small land-locked country in east Africa, is one of the poorest in the world with a population of a little over 10 million and an annual GDP of $2.7 billion, according to the World Bank. Yet, an ethnic conflict there could have untold repercussions for the region. Leaders from neighboring countries would prefer a election delay for now so cooler heads can prevail.

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