3 steps Congress can take to end violence in Burundi before it’s too late

This past weekend marked a troubling escalation in the crisis in Burundi, propelling the country ever closer to civil war. On Friday, an attack by rebels on six military bases was noteworthy for its scale and coordination. While the rebels soon pulled back, the attacks were embarrassing to the government. In what many see as a reprisal, the government launched a cordon-and-search operation in neighborhoods of the capital, Bujumbura, known to be opposition strongholds. Since then, up to 200 bodies have appeared on the streets, many in civilian clothes and some with their hands bound.

{mosads}This weekend was the deadliest in Burundi, the small central African country just south of Rwanda, since the current unrest began in April. While exact figures are difficult to corroborate, over the past nine months attacks by government-aligned youth militias on communities sympathetic to the opposition, and subsequent targeted assassinations by rebel and pro-government groups, have led to upward of 500 people being killed, and at least another 240,000 — 60 percent of whom are children — fleeing to neighboring countries.

Now, as government leaders have begun to promulgate ethnic narratives to further their interests, some fear that the conflict could devolve into a Hutu versus Tutsi genocide, or a civil war akin to the one that cost 300,000 lives in the 1990s and early 2000s. After this weekend, the United States urged its citizens to leave as soon as possible.

The violence in Burundi was precipitated by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s unconstitutional bid for a third term. Also at risk for Burundi is a multimillion-dollar security partnership in which the United States supports the Burundian military, providing nearly a quarter of the troops in the multilateral fight against al Shabaab and al Qaeda in Somalia.

Last week, my colleague Joseph Siegle testified on the Burundi crisis before a Senate Foreign Affairs subcommittee, and afterward, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Ben Cardin (D-Md.) asked him what Congress can do to bring about peace in Burundi and prevent another genocide. In the exchange that followed, three things stood out:

1. Propose a transitional government. Let’s be clear: Nkurunziza’s third term lacks legitimacy. Widespread popular protests erupted the moment the president’s intentions were announced in April. Some 130 officials from his own party petitioned him to step aside. The Constitutional Court had to rule on his eligibility, and one justice fled the night prior due to intimidation. Nkurunziza has waged a violent campaign against his own people to repress this dissent and in May, a failed coup aimed to dislodge him from power. Boycotted elections were held in July. However, their credibility was roundly rejected by the African Union (A.U.), and East African Community, the United Nations, the United States and the Catholic Church. Without the full trust of his public or security sector, with international condemnation, and with badly needed foreign aid now expected to be halved in 2016, it is increasingly unclear just whom Nkurunziza is representing.

Congress could openly recognize Nkurunziza’s illegitimacy by resolution and lead international and regional partners in the push for a transitional, multiparty government staffed by technocrats who would be ineligible for the subsequent election. Just in the last few years, such governments proved effective in Burkina Faso, Mali and Guinea.

2. Press for and fund speedy deployment of peacekeepers. The A.U. has already called for international peacekeepers in Burundi, and a United Nations resolution welcomed the idea. As ethnically divisive rhetoric increasingly drives Burundi’s political conflict toward greater instability, the urgent deployment of a peacekeeping force is needed now more than ever. Such a force would be a critical buffer between rival armed groups, minimize further escalation, and give Burundian society and media the space it needs to resume an inclusive debate over the way forward.

Members of Congress, through phone calls, public statements or budget allocations, could push successive A.U. and U.N. resolutions toward implementation of a 3,000 to 5,000 member peacekeeping force. The Burundian military has remained impartial, so such a force — smaller than most U.N. missions and mostly needed in the capital — would likely face little resistance and could be quite effective at this stage, as larger missions were when facing larger crises in Sierra Leone and even Burundi itself a decade ago. The relatively little funding required would protect U.S. resources already invested in Burundi’s troops in Somalia. It may also save the U.S. from the regret it experienced after nonintervention during Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.

3. Endorse the Arusha Accords as the only way forward. The Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement (or Arusha Accords) guided Burundi out of its earlier 12-year civil conflict, with two peaceful transitions of power in 2003 and 2005. The popular accords created incentives for multi-ethnic coalition-building among political parties and within civil society organizations. They did the same for the defense forces, contributing to their relative impartiality and restraint during the current crisis. Nkurunziza’s third term abrogates the accords and his supporters hope to dismantle them further in order to consolidate power.

Congress should be wary of any new negotiated settlements proposed by Nkurunziza allies that are vehicles for moving away from the Arusha Accords. Over the past decade, until Nkurunziza’s ill-fated decision to press for more time in power, the accords had provided a widely supported political framework that fostered stability and a multi-ethnic vision for Burundi.

What happens next in Burundi is important beyond its borders. It will impact much-needed stability in central Africa, which is emerging from years of conflict. It affects U.S. security concerns on the Horn of Africa. And it will contribute to strengthening or weakening Africa’s democratic norms, particularly given that other African leaders are seeking to extend their time in office past their constitutionally mandated terms.

Congressional attention to the Burundi crisis now can defuse a political conflict before it morphs into one in which ethnicity tragically becomes a driver of violence—and before it becomes more difficult and costly to Burundi, the region and the international community to resolve.

Rettig is a research associate at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies. All views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect an institutional position by the Africa Center or the Department of Defense.

Tags A.U. African Union Arusha Accords Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement Burundi Pierre Nkurunziza
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