Dove Magazine

East Africa must stop Nkurunziza from plunging Burundi into another genocide

Burundian riot police at a barricade in Musaga, on the outskirts of Bujumbura, put up by people protesting President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid for a third term in office, on April 28, 2015. PHOTO | SIMON MAINA |  AFP

Burundian riot police at a barricade in Musaga, on the outskirts of Bujumbura, put up by people protesting President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term in office, on April 28, 2015. PHOTO | SIMON MAINA | AFP

In Summary

  • Burundians and Rwandans in the US argue that it is just a matter of time before tensions start rising between the two neighbours over the ethnic divide and the materially opposing ruling elite on either side of the border.
  • With memories of the 1994 genocide against Tutsi still fresh in the minds of many, leaders across the continent must do whatever it takes to stop a repeat of these murders. Elections are supposed to be an internal affair.
  • President Nkurunziza and his government have breached various aspects of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.

Burundi, the smallest and poorest of the five East African Community countries, is on the edge of a chasm. Barely 48 hours after President Pierre Nkurunziza launched his “re-election” campaign, police executed two demonstrators and injured dozens more.

Their crime was exercising their freedom of expression and right to assemble and associate freely. If media reports are anything to go by, these killings are just the beginning of a bloody campaign period.

Mr Nkurunziza’s unapologetic and seemingly violent bid for a third term is disturbing. First, it smacks of the big-man syndrome, which “legitimises” total disregard of the supremacy of the constitution.

Second, Burundians who have witnessed genocide twice before, in 1972 and 1993, are so scared that thousands have already crossed over into neighbouring Rwanda.

Third, those seeking refuge in Rwanda are the majority Tutsi, an unfortunate reminder of the circumstances that led to the worst genocide in human history.

RISING TENSIONS

Burundians and Rwandans in the US argue that it is just a matter of time before tensions start rising between the two neighbours over the ethnic divide and the materially opposing ruling elite on either side of the border.

Mr Nkurunziza is an ethnic Hutu while his Rwandan counterpart, Mr Paul Kagame, is a Tutsi. Both leaders have rebel backgrounds but their leadership styles are totally different. Burundians fear that President Kagame may be compelled to intervene and in the process plunge the two countries into a conflict pitting Tutsis against Hutus.

With memories of the 1994 genocide still fresh in the minds of many, leaders across the continent must do whatever it takes to stop a repeat of these murders. Elections are supposed to be an internal affair.

However, the EAC, or rather the East African region, is so inextricably intertwined that it would be irresponsible for regional leaders to let Burundi plunge into chaos under the guise of “respecting” its sovereignty and territorial integrity.

This is mainly because there is a big difference between meddling in the internal affairs of another country and acting responsibly to prevent crimes against humanity. The EAC must act now or live to blame itself for doing nothing.

Failing to act would inadvertently create a third banana republic in the region in addition to Somalia and South Sudan.

Even though Burundi does not have a lot of economic clout, its collapse would cut off a sizeable market for East African enterprise. Kenya Airways, for instance, runs three to four daily flights to Bujumbura.

HIGH STAKES

Equity Bank and Kenya Commercial Bank have operations in Burundi. The ports of Dar es Salaam and Mombasa serve as the gateway to this landlocked agro economy. Rwanda literally rules the market in Burundi. There is no doubt that the East African Community has high stakes in Burundi.

As a member state, Burundi is a signatory to the EAC Treaty and must be held accountable for breaching it. President Nkurunziza and his government have breached various aspects of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.

It is, therefore, imperative for the EAC to invoke Article 143 of its own treaty, which spells out sanctions against members who do not fulfil their obligations.

Finally, EAC leaders must read the Riot Act to Mr Nkurunziza. They must point out to him that his political interests are secondary to national and regional peace and stability. As his peers, they must tell him that they will not hesitate to intervene to save Burundi and stop the possibility of an exodus of refugees or creation of camps for internally displaced people.

If the EAC fails to act decisively, Rwanda may be forced to respond unilaterally. Such a move would probably attract the attention of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, another rogue nation with vested interests in Burundi, and inflame an already fragile situation. Burundi is too fragile for any kind of sectarian incursions.

For far too long, African leaders have talked about African solutions to African problems. This is their opportunity to walk the talk and stop Pierre Nkurunziza from starting a genocide in the Great Lakes region.

Mr Kaberia is the assistant director of international programmes at the University of the District of Columbia in Washington, DC. tim.kaberia@gmail.com

By TIMOTHY KABERIA

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