Anika Michel | SIPA Class of 2018
Political violence has taken hundreds of lives in Burundi and a reported 270,000 people have fled to neighboring states to escape the protests, extra-judicial killings and assassinations in the past 19 months.
The East African nation, one of the world’s poorest countries, saw a surge in the violence last December when 87 people were killed execution-style in Bujumbura, the capital. The victims included civilians and members of the security forces.
The chaos started in April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza, despite a constitutional two-term limit, decided to seek a third term in office. He has been in power since 2005. Overcoming many protests against his election bid and even an attempted coup, he won reelection in July.
In the month following the election, the New York Times reported that a top general close to the president was assassinated, further escalating tensions. A year after the election, civil unrest continues.
Hungriest country in the world
What sets Burundi apart from other countries experiencing civil conflict, however, is the effect that it has had on the country’s nutrition levels and donor funding.
“Before the crisis, the global hunger index had already rated Burundi as the hungriest country in the world,” said Bo Viktor Nylund, Unicef’s representative in Burundi. Unicef is a UN agency that provides humanitarian aid to children and mothers in developing countries. “What we [have seen] in the health arena – which is 58 percent reliant on external donors – is that there are cracks in the system, beginning with essential drugs,” Nylund went on to tell The Guardian of London.
In addition to the political violence and malnutrition, there have been threats of malaria and cholera, which have caused Unicef to declare that the country is on the brink of a “major crisis.” According to The Guardian of London, the agency was forced to intervene late last year to provide basic drugs for pregnant women and for children. The education system was also found to be in jeopardy.
“We’re seeing similar developments both in terms of increased reports of kids not having had anything to eat when they come to school, thus preventing high performance and causing teachers to not want them in school because they’re not able to concentrate – and also in terms of school materials and availability of resources for the government to actually run teacher training and so forth,” Nylund said.
In addition to the problems in education and health care, there has also been a surge in gender-based violence in Bujumbura.
Samantha Power expresses dismay at inaction regarding Burundi
Given the severity of the crisis, many UN diplomats have stressed the need to do more to resolve the situation. Within two days after the bloodshed in Bujumbura last December, US ambassador to the UN Samantha Power sent a note expressing concern to diplomats at the British and French missions in New York.
“Flagging, we are leaving Burundi,” Power wrote in an email obtained by VICE News. “Assessment is it is going to hell.”
One of Power’s best known literary works prior to becoming a diplomat was her book, “A Problem from Hell,” which analyzed the lack of American intervention in cases of genocide in the 20th century. While many consider the crisis in Burundi to be due to the political instability, VICE News states that Power’s rhetoric in her email brought back a chilling “reminder of the holocaust that beset its neighbor Rwanda” more than two decades ago, which took place due to ethnic differences.
“Yesterday’s council session was pretty pathetic,” Power wrote. “No contingency planning, no UN presence, no dialogue.” Indeed, there are no armed UN personnel in Burundi.
As Power vented internally to her diplomat colleagues, publicly she called for a peacekeeping mission. According to The Guardian of London, Power said that the UN Security Council should examine “how the international community can protect civilians from mass violence, including for the possible deployment of a regionally-led peace support operation.”
Diplomatic dialogue turned into action
The diplomatic dialogue eventually turned into action. Two weeks ago, the UN announced that there would be an investigation into alleged human rights violations in Burundi, according to Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcast service.
Given the death toll since April 2015, one would expect Burundians to welcome the UN human rights probe and see it as a move towards an overdue reform of the country’s government. However, citizens of Burundi apparently were not exactly keen on UN intervention.
According to Deutsche Welle, thousands of Burundians took to the streets in Bujumbura on November 26 to protest against “foreign interference” after the announcement of the UN investigation. There were reports that similar protests took place in more than 100 other areas across Burundi.
Martin Nivyabandi, the country’s solidarity and human rights minister, told a press conference on November 24 that the three UN investigators authorized to investigate human rights violations in Burundi are not welcome, calling the investigation “neo-colonialism” and saying that the issue of human rights should be monitored by Africans themselves.
“There are some international organizations whose goal is to destabilize certain governments in Africa,” Nivyabandi said, an apparent appeal to the patriotism of his citizens to reject outside pressures.