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Let’s all calm down, Burundi is not going to hell in a hurry; all it needs is dialogue

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The risk of increased violence is ever present. But the war-mongering and genocide narrative is far removed from the reality of daily life in Burundi. ILLUSTRATION | JOHN NYAGAH |   NATION MEDIA GROUP

By Richard Momoima Onyonka

Posted  Saturday, November 21   2015 at  15:23

In Summary

  • I see the situation in Burundi as a low-intensity conflict that is so nascent that it is possible to reverse it. I also view it as a political crisis that is being mishandled by all actors. Without meaning to be simplistic in analysing a complex situation, I believe that this is a struggle confined to the political elite. And thus the relative calm in the countryside.

Since Burundi’s ruling party indicated that it would nominate President Pierre Nkurunziza as its presidential candidate in April, Burundian opposition actors and the international community have been beating the war-drums louder by the day.

I realise that there are grounds for alarm. The security situation in Burundi has been tenuous since the anti-third term protests began in April.

The country weathered a failed coup in May. Police have been accused of excessive use of force, arbitrary arrests and other human-rights violations. And an armed opposition group known as “Sindumuja” is alleged to be behind a string of grenade attacks and shootings in Bujumbura. Surprisingly, the countryside seems oblivious to the nightly gunfire in Bujumbura.

The risk of increased violence is ever present. But the war-mongering and genocide narrative is far removed from the reality of daily life in Burundi.

I have been closely involved with Burundi since 2010 when as Kenya’s deputy minister for foreign affairs, I worked alongside former foreign minister Moses Wetang’ula to persuade the opposition not to boycott the elections held that year. We failed. I continued my engagement with various Burundian actors over the next few years, including making several visits to the country this past year.

Let’s put the situation in context. The Arusha Accord brokered by the East African countries with the support of South Africa 15 years ago, has brought relative stability to a country with a challenging past of the overthrow and assassination of its previous leaders.

The failure of the international community to stop the genocide in Rwanda continues to dominate the discourse on Burundi. Analysis of the situation in Burundi has been reduced to drawing parallels with Rwanda’s genocide or even the various genocides that have happened in Burundi in the past — parallels that may have little meaning in today’s reality.

According to the United Nations, 250 people have been killed between April and November 2015. The dead include opposition leaders, ruling party leaders, policemen and military officers — Hutus and Tutsis alike. The killings have been violent and some of the pictures that I have seen are repulsive.

But in my view, these do not appear to be acts with the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” the internationally recognised definition of genocide.

In an attempt to show that the international community has done all in its power to stop the genocide through public statements, we may be adding fuel to the fire and creating a deeper crisis in Burundi.

I see the situation in Burundi as a low-intensity conflict that is so nascent that it is possible to reverse it. I also view it as a political crisis that is being mishandled by all actors. Without meaning to be simplistic in analysing a complex situation, I believe that this is a struggle confined to the political elite. And thus the relative calm in the countryside.

It is a situation in which the political elite that dominated Burundian politics and its economy for many decades fear that the economic goodies associated with their hold on political power are slowly slipping out of their hands as the ruling party entrenches itself further after 10 years in power.

As in most African countries, the political elite reckons that in a political contest that is based on ethnicity rather than socio-economic and political programmes, they do not have a chance of winning elections.

Then there are also those ruling party dissidents who believe that the cake is not being shared equitably and that it is their “turn to eat.” And of course, there are those in the ruling party who believe that they have a mandate to address historical economic injustices and can only achieve this through absolute control of power.

These are the issues that the international community should be asking Burundians to sit down together and find a solution to, rather than peddling genocide rhetoric.

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