Burundi: All Quiet in Burundi? Not Quite.

Protesters raise their hands in front of police in a protest in Bujumbura. (file photo)
11 September 2018

In 2015, Burundi experienced well-publicised unrest, open government repression, a mass exodus of refugees, and the first signs of a new civil war in the wake of President Pierre Nkurunziza's decision to flout the constitution and run for a third term. But after the government successfully clamped down on domestic unrest and largely kept the conflict from spilling over its borders, attention on the crisis has waned.

But according to observers like Crisis Group and the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, a lack of front-page news hasn't equated to actual peacefulness. The government continues to violently suppress opposition, with political killings continuing at a steady pace. Human rights organisations have documented thousands of cases since 2015. Nkurunziza's decision to hold a constitutional referendum earlier this year, which took place under equally undemocratic circumstances as the elections and will allow him to stay in power until 2034, as well as the continued repression, has convinced parts of the opposition that violence is the only promising strategy for resistance. Nkurunziza's announcement that he won't run again in 2020 hasn't changed this interpretation, given that few people trust his promises after 2015.

And while Nkurunziza's position seems secure for the moment, he relies heavily on structures like the ruling party's youth wing Imbonerakure for enforcement. This has given members of these organisations extralegal powers and virtual immunity from prosecution. Reports of land expropriations, murders and other racketeering unrelated to the political conflict are plenty.

On a larger scale, Burundi represents a total collapse of the African Union's peace and security framework. Initially, the AU threatened a robust response to the crisis, proposing a 5,000-strong force to protect civilians and enforce a negotiated settlement. But the majority of African leaders, with many among them eying an extension of the constitutional term limits themselves, sunk this approach in January 2016.

In the ensuing embarrassment, the AU punted the crisis to the East African Community, which under lead mediator Ugandan President Museveni, himself a self-styled president for life, has failed completely to extract meaningful concessions from Nkurunziza.

Meanwhile, the country is experiencing an economic crisis. Desperate for revenues after the EU suspended direct government aid, Nkurunziza has turned to levying higher taxes on the population, exacerbating the effect of the downturn for the average Burundian.

It has become clear that Nkurunziza won't make any concessions to his political opponents without considerable pressure from outside actors and that without concessions, the crisis will persist, continue to claim lives at a steady rate, and destroy the modest economic progress enjoyed by Burundians since the devastating wars of the 1990s. With the current mediators under Uganda's Museveni unable or unwilling to make progress, the EAC, AU or UN must come up with an alternative that is more likely to bring results.

Compiled by @PeterDoerrie

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