Open letter urges Kerry to do more for Burundi

Burundi refugees at the Mahama refugee camp, Rwanda. Photo credit: EU/ECHO/Thomas Conan

The attempted coup in Burundi may have failed, but the political crisis is far from over. And if things don’t change quick, it could get a whole lot worse, warn a group of political scientists this week in an open letter to Secretary of State John Kerry.

“Worrying developments in Burundi greatly increase the likelihood of dramatic reversal of democratic gains and mass killings in the foreseeable future,” warn the letter signed by more than 50 academics from the U.S. and Africa. “Prevention is necessary and time is of the essence.”

Burundians have demonstrated against President Pierre Nkurunziza over the past few months. The ire is directed at the decision by the two-term president to run for an unconstitutional third term. Protesters and Burundian police clashed for weeks, but observers were optimistic that violence would remain a minimal issue. That changed with the attempted coup by members of the military.

I spoke with Mary Baldwin College political scientist Cara Jones, lead author of the open letter to Kerry, before the May 13 coup attempt. At the time she expressed concerns about the political situation in Burundi, but was hopeful that things would be alright in the end. Now, she and her colleagues worry that Burundi is on the brink.

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“Recent events in the country threaten to plunge Burundi back into civil war. The US cannot allow this to happen,” says the letter.

Protests against Nkurunziza continue following the failed coup. At least 50 people have died during clashes between protesters and the police. Further, the president took steps to limit media in the past month. The letter says only public radio and two religious stations are broadcasting. In addition, more than 100,000 Burundians fled the country for refuge in Tanzania, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Burundi emerged from years of civil war to strike a peace accord in 2005. For the past ten years, the country has been a strong example of the ability to rebuild and achieve relative stability after protracted fighting. The recent clamp-downs by the government are cause for concern that widespread fighting could return to Burundi.

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The letter says Kerry and the United States must exact more pressure on the Burundian government to prevent a bad situation from getting worse. Recommendations include stronger advocacy against Nkurunziza’s attempt to run for a third term, sanctions against the government, and support for the East African Standby Force.

A crisis in Burundi matters greatly to the United States, argues the letter. It could destabilize the region and harm the ability to ensure other world leaders do not follow the same path to holding power as Nkurunziza is taking.

“We, the signatories, urge the US government to apply all diplomatic and economic pressure to the Burundian government to swiftly and peacefully resolve the crisis,” they write.

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Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.