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

Saturday November 21 2015

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 |

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.

I have lost count of the number of press statements from the United Nations, the African Union and key AU member states. They have probably issued more statements on Burundi than on the burning situation in Syria and its consequences as seen recently in the barbaric and cowardly terrorist attack in Paris.

I am not saying that statements should not be issued, but they cannot replace genuine diplomatic engagement.

The shrill statements from the international community may actually put at risk those that it hopes to protect. They risk drowning out the voices of the moderates within the government, including minority groups. They risk emboldening the extremists in the opposition and making the extremists in the ruling party more averse to international mediation, thus closing the door on meaningful dialogue.

It is time that the international community reverted to old good diplomacy and let the East African countries handle the situation in Burundi soberly. The leadership role of Tanzania as the chair of the EAC Summit has been commendable.

It will be important for the other countries in the region — Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda — to play a constructive role in Burundi. The recently adopted Security Council resolution provides a basis for moving forward with the dialogue and taking steps to end the violence.

But it is not enough to talk about an East African-led mediation process and continue to pressure the EAC to take rushed decisions. It is not enough to preach national ownership and then castigate national initiatives for dialogue.

As we learned in Kenya in 2007/8, solutions to political crises can only come from the leaders of the warring sides. This needs political will and maturity from the ruling party, the opposition, the region and the international community. It is time to dial down on rhetoric and focus on urgent political solutions to sustain the gains made in the past decade in Burundi.

Richard Momoima Onyonka is Member of Parliament for Kenya’s Kitutu Chache South Constituency and a former deputy minister of foreign affairs.