Last April, President Pierre Nkurunziza plunged Burundi into political chaos by defying the constitution and signaling that he would run for a third term. Since then, about 400 people have been killed in assassinations, raids by government security forces and opposition attacks. More than a quarter-million people have been forced to flee to neighboring countries.
Nkurunziza has been consistent in one area in the past year – thwarting mediated negotiations. Last year, talks overseen by Ugandan President Yoweri Musevenilargely went nowhere, as the Burundian government refused to meet with members of the opposition. Negotiations were scheduled to resume on Monday under a new regional mediator, Benjamin Mkapa, the former president of Tanzania. But yet again, Nkurunziza’s government refused to participate, claiming it had not been consulted about the meeting. The East African Community was forced to announce that it would postpone the talks to later in May.
Meanwhile, after several months of relative quiet, violence in Burundi has increased. In April alone, 31 people were killed, according to the United Nations. Government officials have been targeted and killed, as well as individuals supporting the opposition. Disturbingly, targeted assassinations of army officers have picked up. On April 20, Col. Emmanuel Buzubonawasassassinated in Bujumbura by a group of heavily armed attackers. On April 25, Brig. Gen. Athanase Kararuza was killed in a gun and grenade attack along with his wife while dropping their daughter off at school. Their daughter died shortly after the attack.
The violence and the cuts in international aid are devastating the economy. According to the International Monetary Fund, Burundi’s gross domestic product shrank 7.4 percent in 2015, dropping the country from the third-poorest in the world to poorest. The prospect of both rural and urban Burundians facing hunger only increases the risk of further unrest in a country that has a history of devastating ethnic bloodshed between Hutus and Tutsis.
In what may have been intended as a warning to both sides, the International Criminal Court announcedlate last monththat it was beginning a preliminary investigation of war crimes in the country. Unfortunately, it could take months or even years for the ICC to decide whether to launch a full investigation. A more potent international intervention is needed.
The African Union initially took a strong stance on Burundi, threatening to deploy 5,000 peacekeepers last year. But it backed down in February after the regime objected. Now the United Nations is weighing three options for a police mission. The first would send a 3,000-strong force to help protect the population; the second would send 228 police officers in possible coordination with the African Union as an early- warning mechanism. The third and least promising plan would deploy 20 to 50 U.N. personnel to “help bring about concrete and measurable improvements in respect for human rights” within the security forces.
As Nkurunziza shows little interest in talks, Burundi appears to be on the brink of civil war. The U.N. should do all it can to send a police force large enough to help protect civilian lives. For the sake of Burundi, and the stability of Africa’s Great Lakes region, the status quo of failed dialogue attempts, killings, disappearances and assassination attempts is unacceptable.