Since April, Burundi’s capital of Bujumbura has been the scene of violent confrontations between security forces and civilian protesters who deplore president Pierre Nkurunziza’s candidacy in July‘s presidential elections. Both his candidacy and his overwhelming electoral victory have been denounced by the African Union, the European Union, the UN and a range of governments around the world but Nkurunziza has so far succeeded in calling the bluff of the international community and continuing his authoritarian leadership. For the past several months, assassinations have been reported on a regular basis, alongside reports of attacks against the security forces by, as of yet, unidentified armed actors opposing the regime.

This entry discusses the propensity to understand Burundi’s political crisis as an “ethnic conflict” leading towards genocide and argues that commentators outside Burundi, whether journalists, researchers, or politicians, share a responsibility to refrain from simplifying language and analysis, but an equally important responsibility to insist on exposing and critiquing the abuses committed systematically by the Nkurunziza regime.

The centrality of the Arusha peace accords

The Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi, often referred to as the Arusha accords, were brokered by Julius Nyerere and Nelson Mandela and signed on 28 August 2000 by the fighting parties in Burundi’s civil war. The agreement imposed ethnic quotas within governing bodies and the armed forces in order to address the divisive issues around ethnicity that informed the conflict by institutionalising a power sharing between the fighting parties. This aspect of the Arusha agreement, in combination with the determined efforts of the Burundian people, seems to have been remarkably successful in turning a page on ethnicity as a basis for mobilisation and antagonism. The Arusha accords have remained central to current debates, for example over the legitimacy of Nkurunziza’s candidacy in this year’s presidential elections. While a broad coalition of opposition and civil society leaders have now mobilised as the National Council for the Respect of the Arusha Agreement and the Restoration of the Rule of Law (CNARED), evoking the centrality of the Arusha agreement, the ruling party has systematically attempted to marginalise its stipulations. In March 2014 the regime attempted to abolish the power sharing agreement and to allow for a third presidential term but were voted down in parliament. In April this year, when announcing Nkurunziza’s candidacy for the presidential elections, the party chairman Pascal Nyabenda suggested that the ceasefire agreement signed in 2003 nullifies parts of the Arusha accords.

Among the protesters I encountered in Bujumbura in April, some calling themselves “the Arusha generation”, the Arusha agreement represented a definitive end to the ethnicisation of Burundian politics. When the CNDD-FDD appointed Nkurunziza as their candidate for the presidential elections, protesters evoked a defence of their constitutional rights rather than an allegiance to particular opposition leaders (see my previous entry on this blog). An AfroBarometer survey from January 2015 indicated that 62% of the respondents supported the upholding of the limit of presidential terms to two, while a September 2014 survey showed that a majority of 54% stated that they would vote for the CNDD-FDD. These results confirm the statements I heard in Bujumbura in April, that no one was contesting the right of the CNDD-FDD to present a candidate in the presidential elections and many would consider voting for them but that Pierre Nkurunziza’s candidacy would be unconstitutional.

The centrality of the Arusha accords to the current political crisis revolves around questions of power sharing and of the CNND-FDD’s gradual slide towards authoritarian rule since the end of the civil war in 2006. As many commentators have noted, this scenario – for all its complications and detrimental consequences – has little to do with genocide or “ethnic hatred” and everything to do with the deliberate manipulation of democratic institutions and the rule of law by the ruling party.

The G-word

This disqualification of the term genocide may seem banal and irrelevant to experienced observers of Burundian politics, or even of similar scenarios in other countries around the world – as one commentator remarked when I made the point in August. But it must be restated at this juncture given the tendency of certain observers within the international media and diplomacy to fit the Burundian political crisis into this familiar mould. In a recent debate article in the Daily Maverick, republished in The Guardian on 18 November, Patrick Hajayandi, senior project leader for the Great Lakes at the Institute for Justice and Reconciliation, rejects the genocide terminology and provides examples of how it has been forwarded in articles in the French language press. Hajayandi proceeds from this critique to argue that commentators outside Burundi have been exaggerating the scale and nature of political violence through “alarmist” reporting and that these analyses may have unfavourable consequences for the prospects of reaching out diplomatically to the Nkurunziza regime. Hajayandi concludes that “dialogue is the way forward, not a foreign military intervention prompted by overblown calls of “genocide”, which is likely to radicalise both parties, increasing the likelihood of an all-out civil war”. As should be clear, I sympathise deeply with the critique of the use of “the G-word” to explain Burundi’s political crisis but I am less convinced by Hajayandi’s general argument against “alarmist” analyses and, in fact, believe that this position may have detrimental consequences of its own with regard to the prospects for a diplomatic solution.

Between alarmist and apologist analysis

On 2 November Nkurunziza presented an ultimatum to “armed criminals” opposing his regime in the capital to surrender their weapons by Monday 7 November, or be viewed as enemies of the state. The president’s warning that the security forces would use “all possible means” to identify its enemies was taken by many observers, including US ambassador to the UN, Samantha Power, to open the door for widespread harassment and violence in the parts of Bujumbura that have been the site of protests and attacks against the security forces since April. Since that time civilians in these areas have been organising informal neighbourhood watch groups to protect themselves against the nightly patrols by the Imbonerakure militias. By emphasising the possession of illegal firearms the warning could easily be seen to include not only those responsible for grenade attacks and similar assaults on the police and other public officials but even these neighbourhood watches and anyone seen by the regime to be affiliated with those suspected of being “armed criminals”. Following Nkurunziza’s statement, other actors within his inner circle repeated the ultimatum in public announcements, with some individuals stepping up the rhetoric considerably. For example, Senate President Reverien Ndikuriyo was quoted as employing a language that clearly evokes the Hutu propaganda of the Rwandan genocide, using a vocabulary of “taking action”, “going to work”, “exterminating”, “starting a bush fire” etc. These statements fuelled the international warnings against a “genocide in the making”.

What has been clear from the beginning of the current political crisis is that the Nkurunziza regime is applying different rhetorical strategies depending on the intended audience. Towards its internal opposers, and the Burundian population more generally, the predominant strategy consists of intimidation, harassments and direct threats, with token promises of a dialogue of national reconciliation. These statements, such as the 2 November ultimatum are usually made in Kirundi on national television or at political meetings. Towards an international audience, statements in French are issued, mainly through interviews with foreign journalists, downplaying the scale of the instability and violence. “Burundi is not burning”, Burundi’s foreign minister Alain Aimé Nyamitwe stated in front of the UN Security Council via video-link on 9 November in one such statement, directly addressing the concern expressed by the vast majority of international and multinational actors.

The surge of reporting on a genocide in the making in Burundi, then, may be seen as stemming from statements by the Nkurunziza regime intended for a national audience as a strategy of intimidation that in part relies on evoking past state-organised violence in Burundi as well as in Rwanda. But the problematic implications of “the G-word” are not limited to the stereotypical misrepresentation of the Burundian crisis. By warning against a “genocide in the making” external observers contribute to a downplaying of the systematic state-organised violence and intimidation by the regime which has been taking place for years, and has escalated since the public protests against Nkurunziza’s candidacy began in April. This year’s death toll has passed 200 and the level of intimidation and harassment seems to have left many Burundians – particularly in Bujumbura – in constant fear for their lives. And this brings us back to the critique of an “alarmist” tendency in reporting on the Burundian crisis. International reactions have so far displayed a lack of concerted action from the East African Community, the African Union, the United Nations, the European Union and other actors with the potential to broker a diplomatic solution to the political crisis. What is needed is action that goes beyond gratuitous condemnations and threats or impositions of economic sanctions that are most likely to affect the general population well before it touches the regime. In this context, there is a need for external voices to document, explain and condemn the systematic abuse committed by the Nkurunziza regime, including the president’s illegitimate claim to power, the brutalisation of civilians especially in the capital, and the incitement to violence. Part of such analyses should, obviously, call attention to the gradual militarisation of some opposers of the regime and the risk of a gradual regionalisation of the armed confrontation taking place in Burundi but to set the armed resistance on a par with the violence committed by the regime is to misrepresent the scale of the violence committed against state agents.

In this way, by linking the use of the term genocide to a general critique of “alarmist” reporting from or on Burundi, an unfortunate consequence of Hajayandi’s contribution could be that external observers bite their tongues in fear of inviting post-colonialist accusations of being detached and patronising observers of a political competition that is none of their business, or as I was called recently in reaction to my own warnings of the threat of an escalation of violence, of being “warmongers” working against a peaceful solution to the Burundian crisis. Rather than contributing to a peaceful solution, self-censorship by external observers plays into the hands of the Nkurunziza regime’s international strategy of downplaying instability and painting a picture of a few troublemakers disturbing public order in a few marginal neighbourhoods of Bujumbura. The gradual militarisation of parts of the opposition probably has much more to do with dormant civil war infrastructures – including chains of command, the availability of arms, and combatant capabilities – as well as with the lack of a convincing response from international actors, than it has to do with the choice of words of the foreign press.

In a context where the international response to the Nkurunziza regime’s blatant disregard of both national and international standards of governance is being met with noncommitting condemnation or, at best, economic sanctions or the mere threat thereof, there is a stronger need for well-informed analyses of the political crisis and its dynamics than there is for a relativizing and apologist insistence on the international “bias” against the Nkurunziza regime. The notion of “genocide” has no place in such analyses, but there is a far cry between indulging in easy stereotypes about the nature of African conflicts, on the one hand, and a call for moderation and self-censorship in the critique of Nkurunziza and his inner circle, on the other.

Condemnation does not imply the end of diplomacy

Following from this, another curious misunderstanding in the critique of alarmist reporting on Burundi is the assumption that a well-founded condemnation of the oppressive and unconstitutional actions of the Nkurunziza regime would necessarily imply an exclusion of these actors from future negotiations or agreements. The primary challenge of international mediators in the Burundian crisis is to succeed where all attempts so far have failed; in bringing Nkurunziza back to the negotiating table in a genuinely committed manner. To note that he, among others, is under scrutiny by the International Criminal Court does not imply that the current crisis can be resolved without him. With the lack of determined intervention – in the shape of external mediation and possibly of peacekeeping forces on the ground – the crisis is likely to continue its escalation and to be resolved through armed confrontation, as we saw it in Côte d’Ivoire’s post-electoral crisis in 2010-11. That would be yet another defeat of international diplomacy and to Burundi’s post-conflict reconciliation. Burundi needs a diplomatic solution in which all parties are included. But the conduct of the Nkurunziza regime must have legal and political consequences, in order to move away from the atmosphere of impunity that surrounds the region’s political despots – both the seasoned kind of Yoweri Museveni and the aspiring kind of Paul Kagame.

In closing, it is unfortunate that analyses of Burundi’s political crisis should divert from this substance matter and enter into a war over words, a representational hall of mirrors. Through this text I am, obviously, contributing to this unfortunate tendency but I hope to have pointed to a mediatory space between the extreme positions of the alarmists evoking genocide and the relativists evoking self-censorship. I also hope to have pointed to an important distinction between the importance of denouncing the acts of violence, intimidation and persecution committed by the Nkurunziza regime and the equal importance of including these actors in future negotiations for an end to the current crisis.

Jesper Bjarnesen is senior researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute. He has worked primarily on mobility and intergenerational relations in urban Burkina Faso and Côte d’Ivoire. Other research interests include political transitions in Guinea-Conakry and African immigration to the European Union. Since 2014 he has been a member of a research project on The Micro-Level Dynamics of Electoral Violence in Sub-Saharan Africa, which follows the current processes in Burundi.