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Burundi crisis: Fears of mass violence similar to 1990s Rwanda

Burundian police and soldiers guard a deserted street in Bujumbura, Burundi, Sunday, Nov. 8, 2015. (AP Photo)

Gunmen killed at least nine people in a bar in Burundi’s capital city of Bujumbura on Saturday. The incident adds to building fears that the central African country, which has been in a political crisis for months, may experience mass violence. Much of the concern stems from the announcement by embattled President Pierre Nkurunziza that crackdowns will begin against people holding illegal weapons. The leader gave citizens until the end of Saturday before security forces would enact house-to-house searches – sparking grave warnings.

The International Crisis Group said Friday that the situation is eerily familiar to what preceded the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

“According to Crisis Group’s sources as well as media reports, it appears that President Pierre Nkurunziza and those around him intend to use force to end the protests that have been held in Bujumbura since April,” according to the group’s statement. “The language is unambiguous to Burundians and chillingly similar to that used in Rwanda in the 1990s before the genocide.”

The international community is paying close attention. The U.N. Security Council is set to meet today – some say potentially too late given the passage of Nkurunziza’s deadline. In the run up to the meetings, diplomats from the United States, United Kingdom and elsewhere have published statements denouncing the violence and the threats of more to come.

“We are deeply concerned by President Nkurunziza’s speech of Nov. 2nd, in which he pledged to use violent methods to have security forces search homes for weapons and opposition figures within five days,” said Samantha Power, U.S. ambassador to the U.N., in a statement late Friday. “The United States expresses its extreme concern that the five-day ultimatum issued by the president will trigger widespread violence beginning this coming weekend. … Such dangerous speech and the president’s call for a widespread, indiscriminate security crackdown exacerbate an already volatile situation and risk inciting even greater violence.”

Power’s sentiments were shared by other experts late last week. A group of academics wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry back in July about the potential for violence in Burundi. It came in the wake of a failed coup attempt against Nkurunziza that followed weeks of protests and violent action taken by the police. The concerns that existed months ago did not abate and that the rhetoric from the president made matters worse.

Burundi, a country that has maintained peace for a decade following years of a brutal civil war, is now being compared to neighboring Rwanda. It is a similarity not lost on Rwandan President Paul Kagame who joined the international community in condemning the rise of violence in Burundi over the past few weeks.

“It is sad that the African continent has a disease, to an extent that I will be blamed for meddling in another country, that I should be diplomatic about it or I deal with it politically. But that can’t be, I am being frank and open,” said Kagame. “Leaders are spending time killing people. Bodies of dead people are scattered everywhere. Refugees are wandering everywhere – women and children – and you want to call this politics? What kind of politics is this?”

Reports from Burundi indicate that more people are fleeing the country and the capital city. More than 200,000 people are seeking asylum in neighboring countries, according to the U.N. Violence in the country since April has claimed at least 200 lives. A cholera outbreak hit the refugees in Tanzania in May due in large part to the sudden influx of people and the difficult conditions – little has changed since then to accommodate another exodus of people.

What will happen next is uncertain. So is whether the international community can take the appropriate actions to prevent mass violence in Burundi. Ignored warnings from months ago are now reality and it may be too late to change the direction for the country.



About Author

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]