A relatively peaceful decade has passed since the end of the Burundian Civil War. This month’s events put that peace at risk. On May 13th, General Niyombare claimed to have “overthrown” President Nkurunziza. After a particularly violent morning, the streets of Bujumbura broke into jubilant celebrations and the immediate removal of most barricades, just moments after the announcement was made.

So far, there are a reported 216 injured, 20 dead, and more than 600 protestors imprisoned. The scenario evolves rapidly, and future developments are difficult to predict. The risk of widespread violence persists. 

ADVERTISEMENT

But why should you care about a small African nation, thousands of miles away? As an American, what happens there doesn’t impact you, right? 

Wrong. Here's why.

The Fight Against Global Terrorism

Burundi is the second largest contributor of peacekeeping troops to the US State Department funded AMISOM mission, and the fight against Al-Shabaab in Somalia. Burundi is actually number three on Al-Shabaab’s list after Kenya and Uganda, both of which have already suffered attacks at their hands. The group has made multiple public statements that Burundi will pay for cooperating with the United States. 

Last Wednesday, the US Embassy emailed out an emergency message to all Americans residing in Burundi about a possible terrorist threat on locations where Westerners congregate. It is quite possible that adding fear and destabilization to an already precarious situation could plummet the country back into civil war. Conflict would call into question the credibility of having Burundi provide troops to peacekeeping missions abroad. The 5,432 troops Burundi currently has in Somalia would likely be sent home.

At a time when AMISOM is making unprecedented progress in hacking back Al-Shabaab’s territorial grip on Somalia, it’s in the US’s interests in the global fight against terrorism to avoid the scenario outlined above.

Regional Stability

50,000 Burundian refugees have already fled to neighboring countries in the historically fragile Great Lakes region. Many families have sent women and children abroad, leaving behind mostly men - a factor that is considered a contributor to the likelihood of war. Conflict in Burundi would result in massive population displacement. If the image of thousands of women and children pouring across borders in search of safety doesn’t tug at your heartstring, think about your wallet. The US State Department is already a major supporter of refugee resettlement in the region; the Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration spending an annual budget of $1.2 billion. In the case of a massive refugee crisis, this figure would only increase.

Resources play a decisive role too. From Burundi, it takes about 30 minutes to access the unstable Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, one of the most resource rich areas on Earth. This territory has been used as a training ground for rebel groups and, given the fragility of the Congolese government, is a place where we don’t want terrorists to get a foothold. 

Democracy & Human Rights

The protest movement has been met with force, wrongful imprisonment, and a crackdown on freedom of press. This is not a one-sided issue; protestors are responsible for many episodes of violence as well.

Outside of the capital, all private radio stations have been silenced (some have reopened as a result of today’s developments). Social media are no longer accessible without a VPN application.

Hundreds of protestors have been detained, accused of insurrection. The rumors around town are that these detainees are being treated as terrorists, and subject to torture. The President also said that, with the exception of minors, none of them will be released until the end of the protests, a clear attempt to use them as leverage. Surely, some of those detainees broke the law, but they are not the only ones being hauled in. 

This flies in the face of efforts to uphold the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Arusha Accords. We must ask for an end to these abuses.

The Precedent 

This year alone 11 countries across Africa will hold elections. All of them have the potential to ignite preexisting tensions, and potentially set back the work that has been done to advance democracy and establish peace. In June, Burundi will set a precedent in terms of the conduct of free and fair elections. 

Massive amounts of resources are being poured into improving development on the continent. In July, UN member states will meet to discuss the multi trillion-dollar financing of the Sustainable Development Goals in preparation for adoption in September, of which Burundi will be a beneficiary. If we don’t want this money - and all the progress achieved so far - to go to waste, we must support peaceful, democratic elections.

We Said “Never Again”

While this is not an ethnically motivated struggle, Burundi does have a complicated history with ethnic conflict. Unlike Rwanda, Burundi never successfully put into place a functioning Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In the current context, ethnicity is coming up more and more often, used as a tool to divide the population. No one can say whether this conflict will evolve into an ethnic one; but we must recognize that fear is a dangerous thing, especially as it relates to a very poor population that is still haunted by the memory of trauma. 

We said that never again would we allow genocide. We must be true to our promise.

Now What?

In holding with our American values and regional interests, we need to encourage both sides of the current conflict to maintain peace. We need to follow the evolution of the protests and design plans to support the peace process. We need to get the attention of our government, and the international institutions that can help uphold human rights. We need to support the local institutions coping with this crisis. American journalists need to report responsibly. And if you as an individual American want to do something, consider supporting one of the organizations working to restore peace in Burundi. 

Nemecek is a Conflict Sensitivity specialist at Search for Common Ground, based in Bujumbura, Burundi.