Burundi is not on the brink of another genocide but what’s unfolding is no less worrying

Suspected fighters are paraded before the media by the Burundian police.
Suspected fighters are paraded before the media by the Burundian police.
Image: Reuters/Jean Pierre Aime Harerimana
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As many as 100 people have been killed in Burundi’s capital city Bujumbura over the past four days, after opposition groups attacked government military bases on Friday. Security forces have reportedly raided neighborhoods killing both opposition activists and civilians, leaving their bodies in the streets, in what is the worst spate of violence since April when president Pierre Nkurunziza ignored widespread protests and sought a third term.

Human rights observers say that mass arrests have also been made. The US ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Powers warned over the weekend that the situation could “devolve into mass violence” if both sides don’t negotiate. Both the US and Canada have advised their citizens to leave or avoid the country.

The small central African country has experienced two genocides in the last 50 years driven by tensions between Tutsis and Hutus—the last one left 300,000 dead and is believed to have triggered ethnic killings in neighboring Rwanda in 1994 that left 800,000 dead. But worries about another genocide are unfounded, analysts say.

“It is essentially a political conflict,” Carina Tertsakian, a researcher on Burundi for the nonprofit, Human Rights Watch, told Quartz. “It opposes on one side, the president and the ruling party who have been trying to cling on to power and on the other side, his opponents, and those opponents include a mixture of both Hutu and Tutsi… It’s very different from what took place in Burundi in the 1990s.” While politicians on both sides have tried to use ethnic language to whip up popular support, few Burundians are taking the bait, according to Tertsakian. “They are saying, ‘We don’t want to relive that.'”

The structure of the government and military also make it unlikely that violence will devolve into genocidal killing. Burundi’s armed forces are now composed of both Hutu and Tutsi and local and national government bodies, including the parliament and the senate are split 60% to 40% between Hutu and Tutsis, according to Patrick Hajayandi, with the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation. “In such a sensitive political climate, hyperbole can make the already precarious situation more fragile,” he wrote in the Guardian.

The fact that this is mainly a political conflict does not make it any less deadly or intractable. Before this weekend’s violence, more than 240 people are believed to have been killed, according to the UN. The fledgling economy will take a further hit. Foreign aid, which accounts for half of the government’s budget, is plummeting and its few exports of coffee are also suffering. The World Bank has predicted its economy will contract by 2.3% this year.

Burundi’s conflict is already spilling over into the region. More than 200,000 Burundians have fled to Rwanda, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and to a lesser extent Uganda, putting pressure on food supplies and prompting friction between Burundians and their local hosts. The government of Rwanda has been accused of adding fuel to the conflict by supporting armed opposition groups and their recruitment of Burundian refugees. (Rwanda denies these allegations.) Still, in some cases opposition groups have formed in neighboring countries and launched incursions into Burundi.