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Is Burundi heading towards Rwanda-style civil war?

By Michael Jensen - posted Wednesday, 10 February 2016

Think about this as you lace up your running shoes: jogging is a crime in Burundi.

Burundi is a small country geographically with a population of some 11 million people in the region of central Africa, near Rwanda and Uganda.

In March 2014, the country's President, Pierre Nkurunziza, had jogging made illegal because he imagined that it being used as a subversive activity. Twenty-one supporters of the opposition Movement of Solidarity and Democracy Party went out for a run, but were sentenced to life in prison for 'organizing a violent demonstration'.


This almost comical paranoia on the part of its head of state is just some of the evidence that Burundi is on the verge of a genocidal disaster. Nkurunziza has been President of Burundi since 2005. When he became President, a decade of bloody civil war in which 300,000 Burundians were killed, came to an end. But it appears now that the peace of the Nkurunziza era is coming to an end. This is not least because the President has claimed for himself a third term in office, in direct denial of the constitutional agreement of 2005.

In May last year, an attempted coup by opposition forces failed. The President was re-elected by a large majority, although opposition leader Agathon Rwasa called the process a joke.

Since November, a brutal crackdown has started. And increasingly, the evidence is that Nkurunziza is using brutal methods to maintain his grip on power. More than 220,000 people have fled Burundi since April 2015. Amnesty International is reporting evidence of mass graves. There are reports of gruesome beheadings and dismemberments. The United Nations has documented 13 cases of sexual violence perpetrated by the country's own security forces.

Nkurunziza for his part has threatened any peace keeping force from the African Union with retaliation.

Unfolding in Burundi is a sadly familiar story of the after effects of the colonial era. Governed by the most inept and corrupt of the European colonial powers, the Belgians, the country has tensions riven into it that no diplomatic efforts, nor even the passing of time, seem to alleviate. The cycle of genocide, civil war, and tyrannical dictatorship seems to spin on and on.

Behind the violence lies the mysterious deep tensions between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority – an identity question that erupted with demonic force in 1994 in Rwanda, when Hutu militias butchered up to 1 million Tutsi and moderate Hutus. To outsiders, the difference between the two groups seems mysterious. They are not supposedly 'ethnic' groups, nor are they 'castes'. They are not divided by language. Apparently, it is possible to distinguish between the two on the basis of appearance, but that is a controversial thing to say in the study of race. The resentment seems borne of class difference, with the Tutsis thought to be better off than the Hutus.


Nevertheless, these two identities are locked – still – in a bloody struggle, and its latest round is being fought in Burundi right now. Given the terrible, psychopathic history of this conflict, the possibility that we are witnessing the beginnings of a new mass murder is very high.

The trouble is that the situation in Burundi has been allowed to escalate almost without the Western media noticing it. Burundi is still, to many people, an impossibly obscure place. But so was Rwanda before the genocide.

What can any of us do? For one: there are Tutsi refugees in Australia who simply must not be sent home. The likelihood of them being met with violence on their return is very high, especially for those who have been politically active or vocal against the regime.

But this is where belonging to an international, multi-ethnic organisation like the Anglican Church or the Roman Catholic Church might be of some use. The Churches are desperately trying to keep people from all ethnic groups united, to intervene on the side of peace, and to take a stand against corruption and injustice. They have a great potential to broker reconciliation on the ground – not just in government, but in villages and towns. Australian Catholics and Anglicansshould let Burundian church leaders know that they are in our prayers, and offer support to them in their very difficult work.

It may in some small way help prevent the looming bloodbath.

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About the Author

Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark's Anglican Church at Darling Point. He has a doctorate in Moral Theology from Oxford University.

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