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There are signs of renewed ethnic violence in Burundi

A Burundian expatriate woman holds a placard reading ‘Burundi bleeds’ during a candlelight vigil held in Nairobi, Kenya, Dec. 13. (Dai Kurokawa/EPA)

Beginning late Thursday night, an armed insurgency attacked three Burundian army bases – one in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, and two rural outposts. As a result of these attacks, 87 people are reported dead and some estimate the casualty count is even higher.

This was the worst spate of violence since April, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his bid for a controversial third term, sparking protests, a failed coup and ongoing violence. The current political impasse has claimed over 600 lives since the beginning of the year, and forced over 220,000 Burundians to flee their homes.

For Burundi specialists and those interested in the causes of political violence and civil war, the violence has led to debate over its nature: is it ethnic, and thus potentially genocide? This label matters mostly because it will influence how the international community responds.

Determining whether violence is ethnic is not a straightforward process: there is both a definitional issue, of what constitutes “ethnicity,” and a practical one: what is the relationship between different forms of conflict and ethnicity? In Burundi, ethnic differences between Hutu and Tutsi, much as in the case of neighboring Rwanda, existed prior to colonial rule but were solidified by colonial and post-colonial politics. The fight for control of the Burundian state has long been a place where conflict becomes ethnic.

A primer on ethnicity in Burundi

Approximately 80 percent of Burundians are Hutu, 19 percent are Tutsi, and 1 percent are Twa. Among Burundians, ethnicity is not a taboo subject. People discuss their identities openly and freely, many even joking and laughing about stereotypes, such as the common refrain that Hutu are better at football than Tutsi, and that Tutsi are better at math.

In Bujumbura especially, ethnicity and opportunities often move together and manifest in political competition. The advantages accorded Tutsi during the previous Tutsi-led regime (1965-2001) remain, even after more than a decade of Hutu control of government. Many businesses are owned by Tutsi and high positions in foreign companies are held by Tutsi. These advantages bring a higher quality of life, including greater education opportunities and travel abroad. Acting as one of the few checks on the current, predominantly Hutu government is Burundi’s civil society, whose most prominent voices tend to be Tutsi.

The Burundian constitution divides government according to ethnic identity groups using a quota system that protects representation of minority groups with an aim to sharing power. But can post-conflict institutions provide enough stability to keep ethnic conflict from resurfacing? In the case of Burundi, the ethnic integration of the armed forces is intended to be the bulwark against a new civil war breaking out.

Burundi’s history of ethnic violence precedes its civil war (1993-2005), which began after elements of the Tutsi-dominated army assassinated the Hutu president, kicking off ethnic massacres by both groups. One haunting example is the 1972 genocide committed against Hutu elites, schoolboys, army personnel and politicians.

Historically, Burundi’s army chose sides under the old Tutsi-dominated government, but now is regulated by ethnic quotas that prevent domination by one group or the other. At least on its face, ethnic integration and redesign has kept the army from picking sides, although cracks in this facade are beginning to show with the latest attack, suspected of having support from elements of the army sympathetic to the anti-Nkurunziza crowd.

The current context

Since the outbreak of protests against Nkurunziza’s third term, both government and opposition have used ethnicized rhetoric. For example, the government and pro-government forces claim that the protests are a purely ‘urban’ phenomenon, with ‘urban’ used as an implicit cue indicating Tutsi ethnicity. Increases in ethnically charged speech prompted U.S. Secretary of State John F. Kerry and others to call for an immediate cessation of inflammatory dialogue in November.

Why would the government and opposition engage in ethnicized rhetoric? The government uses ethnic rhetoric presumably to signal to the opposition the potential violence that could come their way and incite citizens to participate in violence. The opposition uses ethnicized rhetoric to push for international intervention, which has the potential of changing the makeup of government.

More concerning than the rhetoric, however, are the ethnic patterns of violence that appear to be emerging. There are reports, for example, that security forces have targeted protesters in Tutsi minority-heavy districts of Bujumbura. These individuals have been arrested, tortured and subjected to other forms of violence. Weekend violence resulted in at least 87 deaths, and witness statements and information on victims’ ethnicity strongly suggest that many of the victims were disproportionately Tutsi. The body count has not yet been verified, as victims have yet to be returned to their families, but Human Rights Watch and others have called for an official, independent inquiry.

Burundi’s ethnic quotas designed to protect against a return to violence have fallen short. The police and the intelligence services are exempt from ethnic quotas, are dominated by the ruling party, and they are believed to be the perpetrators of much of the extrajudicial violence that has plagued the country since protests began.

Why labeling conflict “ethnic violence” matters

The politics of calling what is currently happening in Burundi “ethnic violence” are complicated. Doing so could slow or stop meaningful progress from the international community as well as Burundi’s government. International intervention and potential peacekeeping operations could be stymied by actors on all sides using loaded terms like ‘genocide’ to push political agendas. Labeling a conflict as “ethnic” could harden government positions and prevent further mediation.

There would also be regional consequences – as ethnic kinship spills over colonial borders. Burundi’s neighbors, including Uganda and Rwanda, have voiced willingness to intervene militarily should genocidal violence break out. The porousness of borders and ease of moving weapons across them could mean that ethnic kin separated by colonial boundaries might turn into supporters if civil war breaks out, as happened previously in wars in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo (1996-2006).

A new report from Refugees International suggests that regional entanglements are already happening. If Rwanda is actively encouraging and supporting insurgency against the Burundian state, it is very likely to engulf Eastern Congo in more violence. It will also harden regional fault lines — Uganda and its support of Nkurunziza on one side, and Rwanda and the anti-Nkurunziza faction on the other. Furthermore, if Rwanda is supporting a nascent Burundian rebellion, it adds fuel to the ethnic argument pushed by the Burundian regime: that the government of Rwanda (assumed by Bujumbura to be Tutsi-dominated) is seeking a return to pre-2005, Tutsi-dominated politics in Burundi.

Labeling a conflict “non-ethnic” may also miss important dynamics at play and ignore the “stickiness” of ethnic identities in Burundi. Although Burundians may joke about which ethnic group is better at football, they could also use ethnicity as a political shortcut. Elites on both sides may be using ethnic cues for political goals, but without the everyday reinforcement of ethnicity in Burundian culture, society, and by its people, mobilizing people along ethnic lines would be impossible.

The events over this past weekend should raise concern. All signs point to Burundi heading toward a civil war, with a real insurgency that increasingly appears to be drawn along ethnopolitical lines.

Cara E. Jones is assistant professor of political science at Mary Baldwin College. Follow her on Twitter at @ProfCaraJones.