Small Burundi Could Ignite Big Conflict

Corruption, ethnic tensions, refugees, chaos could spread from small, poor Burundi after troubled election
August 11, 2015 Updated: August 11, 2015

HOUSTON—A third term in office for Burundi’s 51-year-old President Pierre Nkurunziza mocks the nation’s constitutional limit of two terms, it also perpetuates rampant corruption with regional and international implications.

Ethnic violence could spread, threatening foreign aid, foreign investment, and the credibility of international peacekeeping in Africa and destabilizing the region. Internationally isolated, crippled by corruption, and facing intensified ethnic conflict, Burundi could emerge as yet another sick regime in Africa.

A third term for Burundi’s President Nkurunziza mocks the nation’s constitutional limit of two terms, it also perpetuates rampant corruption with regional and international implications.

The United Nations, the European Union, the United States, and other western observers contend the elections, mired in controversy, lacked credibility. In defying the two-term limit set by the constitution, Nkurunziza emulates other sub-Saharan African leaders, Presidents Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe and Teodoro Obiang of Equatorial Guinea, who have rooted themselves as authoritarian leaders. Among the continent’s large oil producers, Equatorial Guinea boasts one of the highest per capita incomes in the world. This doesn’t translate into welfare for its people. While Mugabe managed an economic rebound with GDP growth of 4 percent last year after years of decline, Zimbabwe’s unemployment rate is the highest in sub-Saharan Africa.

Among the string of pivotal elections for Africa’s Great Lakes Region, the Democratic Republic of Congo is set to vote in 2016 and Rwanda’s elections are scheduled for 2017. Nkurunziza’s victory on July 21 with 69 percent of the vote could pave the way for neighboring heads of states to try extending their rule, inviting new waves of activism, and harsh repression. Nkurunziza’s re-election campaign stoked fear and, in turn, unleashed a new round of violence.

The constitutional court, under political pressure, granted Nkurunziza eligibility to run for a third term on the grounds that he was appointed by parliament rather than elected by voters his first term. A leading opposition candidate called for a delay; the vote proceeded because the constitution calls for an election at least a month prior to the end of the president’s term. Nkurunziza was expected to win, given that 17 opposition parties boycotted the elections. “The country has sunk into a political and security mess, which in no way can allow for peaceful, transparent, free, or credible elections,” the opposition representatives declared in a joint statement. “Endorsing such a process is equivalent to supporting a predictable civil war in Burundi.”

More than 100 people have been killed since April, when Nkurunziza first announced his intention to run for re-election. Brutal clashes between police and protesters have driven more than 170,000 refugees into the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania, and Rwanda to escape “targeted campaigns of intimidation and terror,” as described by United Nations monitors. The U.N. Refugee Agency expects those fleeing Burundi to reach 200,000 by November, adding pressure for host nations and increasing demand for already scarce resources.

Nkurunziza’s re-election campaign stoked fear and, in turn, unleashed a new round of violence.

The reports eerily recall the 1994 violence in neighboring Rwanda that later ignited genocide, with an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus killed over the course of 100 days.

Like Rwanda, Burundi consists of a Hutu majority and a Tutsi minority. Since attaining independence in 1962 from Belgium, tension between the usually dominant Tutsi minority and Hutu majority that make up about 85 percent of the population has haunted Burundi. Ethnic tensions fueled Burundi’s civil war from 1993 to 2003, leaving an estimated 300,000 dead. Nkurunziza, a former Hutu rebel leader, took office in 2005 following the peace agreement signed in Arusha. The volatile country could not hold direct elections at that time, and he was elected by Parliament.

Unrest in Burundi could lead to tensions between Hutus and Tutsis spilling into Rwanda to the north and the eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo has expressed concern that rebels based in the Democratic Republic of Congo could take advantage of the unrest.

Both nations are landlocked, counted among Africa’s smallest, each about the size of Massachusetts, and among Africa’s densest in terms of population. According to the World Bank Development Indicators, the two are the poorest countries in East Africa. Both depend on foreign donors, with 40 percent of their national budgets financed by external sources.

Twenty years after the brutal genocide, real GDP growth for Rwanda increased from 4.7 percent in 2013 to 7.0 percent in 2014, expected to rise to 7.5 percent for 2015 and 2016. Still, serious challenges in democracy and governance persist. Rwanda’s per capita income is $638; Kenya’s is $1,245 and Tanzania’s is $912. Economic development has benefited few, with 80 percent of Rwandans living on less than $2 per day.

The country has sunk into a political and security mess, which in no way can allow for peaceful, transparent, free, or credible elections.
— Opposition representatives in a joint statement

Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame, a Tutsi, played a critical role in leading the Rwandan Patriotic Front to victory and ending the genocide. He is unlikely to stand by if fellow Tutsis are killed in Burundi. During the 2003 presidential campaign, Kagame depicted himself as a Rwandan rather than a Tutsi and won a landslide victory, vowing to build national unity and strengthen Rwanda’s economy.

Burundi remains fragile: The country received $522 million in total aid for 2012. U.S. bilateral aid totaled $30 million in fiscal year 2014 for food, health, and “military professionalization,” according to the U.S. Congressional Research Service. Food, medicine, and electricity are considered extravagances in a nation where 67 percent of the people live below the poverty line.

Burundi is deemed by Transparency International as one of the most corrupt countries in sub-Saharan Africa with nepotism, bribery, and uncertainty over property rights. Corruption leads to economic stagnation, and investors shy away from the chaos. The government seeks foreign investment, granting large discretionary exemptions to foreign companies by presidential decree or ministerial ordinance. The U.S. State Department notes that such practices undermine the country’s tax law and investment code.

Bujumbura, the capital and largest city, should be a hub for the region’s resource flows. China’s Exim Bank announced plans to fund a railway linking the Kenya port of Mombasa with Nairobi, requiring three years to complete, followed by links to Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, and South Sudan.

The risk to human life, and to regional stability and development is high.
— Zeid Raad al-Hussein, human rights chief, UN

The European Union has threatened sanctions. The United States enforces visa bans on several Burundian government officials. U.S. Ambassador to Burundi Dawn Liberi has confirmed that the United States will review its level of aid for Burundi.

Aid will shift from the government to civil society. Initially, Europe withheld some money allocated for polls, then released 4.5 million euros ($4.9 million) in humanitarian assistance for Burundi refugees. Belgium disbursed half of the 4 million euros it had allocated for the polls, but withheld the rest, and withdrew from a 5 million euro police cooperation deal sponsored jointly with the Netherlands.

U.N. human rights chief Zeid Raad al-Hussein has advised the U.N. Security Council, “the risk to human life, and to regional stability and development is high” due to escalating politically motivated violence and Burundi’s history of bloodshed.

Civil war in Burundi could disrupt activities of peacekeeping troops stationed in Somalia, operated by the African Union and sanctioned by the United Nations. With 5,432 troops, the Burundi contingent is the second largest within the African Union Mission in Somalia. Since 2007, the United States has spent more than $100 million on training and equipping Burundi’s military forces. In 2014, the United States signed an agreement to give the Burundian army an advanced anti-terrorist formation as well as a State of Forces Agreement, which permits the United States to set up a military base in Burundi with diplomatic status for its members. The U.S. intention in helping Burundi to become an international peacekeeper was to combat terrorism and build peace on the continent.

Corruption and poverty promise more dissent, violence and instability—and an unending cycle of decline for the region.

Itziar Aguirre is a freelance writer and a property sector analyst at HFF. She holds an MBA in accounting and finance from the University of St. Thomas and an master of science in comparative politics from the London School of Economics. Copyright © 2015 YaleGlobal and the MacMillan Center at Yale University

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.