Burundi: Sliding towards anarchy

Political, ethnic and economic crises stalk Rwanda’s neighbour

ON THE hard-packed dirt roads of Cibitoke, a northern suburb of Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, police ask residents who have them to put on electric lights at night. They impose a penalty of 50,000 francs ($25 at black market rates) on those who don’t comply. Leaving the lights on allows the officers to see better when they come through looking for suspects. Most young men in the neighbourhood have fled to the countryside or other districts; those who remain tell stories about how they dodged arrest.

Burundi, a tiny green country of 10m people bounded by Rwanda, Tanzania and Congo, has become a place of fear. In cities, people fear police abductions, torture and murder. In the countryside, they fear hunger as the economy collapses. Even among the government’s higher ranks, there is the constant fear of assassination. But the biggest fear of all is that a conflict so far fought on political lines could once again divide Burundi on ethnic ones, between Hutus and Tutsis, and lead to new massacres.

The crisis began in April last year when Pierre Nkurunziza, the president since 2005, announced he would run for a third term. He argued that this was compatible with the constitution, which limits presidents to two terms. Mr Nkurunziza claims his first term did not count, as he was appointed to it by parliament.

Mr Nkurunziza’s announcement produced protests in many of Bujumbura’s neighbourhoods. These were followed in May by an attempted coup launched by a former intelligence chief and supported by soldiers from the president’s own Hutu majority. Mr Nkurunziza was then reelected in July by a comfortable margin. But opposition, much of it from Hutus, did not stop. On December 11th last year, a campaign of grenade-throwing culminated in fighting on the streets as armed opponents of the president, both Hutu and Tutsi, mounted an attack on a barracks. Afterwards, government troops rampaged through those neighbourhoods of Bujumbura that were thought to have supported the rebels, killing people indiscriminately and burying them in mass graves.

So far, there has been no repeat of fighting on that scale. But peace is elusive, too. Instead of warfare, the government has adopted a strategy of eliminating its opponents. “When the police come now, they know exactly who they are looking for,” says one young man in Cibitoke, who has been dodging night-time patrols for months now. But the grounds for suspicion can be razor-thin. The things he lists that can be suspicious include wearing jeans, travelling and socialising in groups larger than three.

Ominously, there is growing evidence that the government crackdown is seeing people being targeted for their ethnicity as well as just for their political affiliation. Certainly plenty of Hutu men have been arrested; but the neighbourhoods of Bujumbura targeted most heavily by the security forces are disproportionately Tutsi. Tutsis are also being sidelined from government institutions. On April 15th the government announced that 700 soldiers—almost all of whom served in the army when it was an entirely Tutsi institution—were to be forced to retire. “Retiring Tutsis is not genocide”, says one Western diplomat. “But it is a sign.”

Worse, some politicians have used language that is strikingly reminiscent of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Révérien Ndikuriyo, the president of the Senate, has talked on the radio about “spraying cockroaches” with bullets and “starting work”, a euphemism for killing used in Rwanda. Persistent rumours fly that the government is co-operating with groups linked to the Rwandan Hutu killers who fled into Congo after the genocide of 1994.

The most immediate problem is that people are beginning to starve. Insecurity has plunged the economy into a tailspin—GDP contracted by 7% in 2015, according to the IMF. People cannot move around because of the proliferation of police roadblocks and the chance of being arrested if caught in the wrong place. In the capital, people who fear arrest are also going hungry. In some neighbourhoods the price of rice has trebled. But the effect is creating problems in the countryside, too. The farmers near Ijenda, a village 45km from Bujumbura, used to sell vegetables to people on the road and use the proceeds to buy flour and fertiliser. But the customers have disappeared. “Look at these,” says a man, bringing over a box of peppers. “They are going to rot and no one will buy them.”

The economic crisis is likely to worsen. In March the European Union announced it would no longer give money directly to the Burundian government, because it refuses to take part in peace talks. It is also looking for a means to pay 6,000 Burundian soldiers fighting in Somalia directly, rather than through the government. Not all aid will be cut—some will be “reprogrammed” through the UN. But the share of the budget accounted for by aid is likely to fall from half in 2015 to less than a third this year. Whether the squeeze will do much to prevent the violence is difficult to say. For the moment, the government has redirected spending from social programmes to pay the army. Mr Nkurunziza shows little interest in talks. An evangelical Christian as well as a former rebel, he is said to believe he has a God-given right to rule. Perhaps fearing assassination, he rarely enters Bujumbura and seems to have bunkered down with a small group of cronies in the countryside.

Insofar as he has a strategy, it seems to be to crush opposition and wait for donors to tire of complaining. Sadly, it may work. The alternative idea to sanctions—an international intervention—has not got far. An African Union proposal in January to send 5,000 peacekeepers was vetoed by Mr Nkurunziza. A UN Security Council proposal to send several hundred peacekeepers has also been watered down after objections. But while the world prevaricates, the crisis gets worse. Across Lake Tanganyika, in the Democratic Republic of Congo, sporadic fighting that started after the Rwandan genocide in 1994 continues. This year, Joseph Kabila, Congo’s president, seems likely to try his own version of Mr Nkurunziza’s three-term gambit. The result could well be similar to what has happened in Burundi. And Congo is dramatically larger.

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