Burundi is not Rwanda

Fear is spreading in Burundi, a country with a history of ethnic violence between Hutu and Tutsi. This scenario brings to mind the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. However, the situation in the two countries is very different. Jesper Bjarnesen, senior researcher at NAI, explains why.

Recently Colonel Jean Bikomagu, former head of Burundi's army, was shot dead outside his home in the capital Bujumbura.It was the latest in a number of killings across Burundi, since President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term in office.

The civil war in Burundi, which ended in 2005, was fought between mostly Hutu rebels fighting against the politically dominant Tutsi minority. Colonel Bikomagu led the Tutsis, while Pierre Nkurunziza was a member of a Hutu rebel group.

“The army general was a clear enemy of Nkurunziza during the civil war. The murder illustrates how the regime is trying to turn the political conflict into an ethnic conflict between Hutu and Tutsi”, says Jesper Bjarnesen.

That would entail a clash along the same ethnic lines as during the genocide in neighbouring Rwanda in 1994. During the approximate 100-day period from April 7 to mid-July 1994, an estimated 500,000–1,000,000 Rwandans were killed,

So can Rwanda’s dark history repeat itself in Burundi?
Jesper Bjarnesen’s answer is a resounding “no”. It is a completely unlikely scenario, he says. Here is why:

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda
The victims were Tutsi or “Hutu sympathizers” and the perpetrators were Hutu. It was also characterized by more than 100 000 non-military perpetrators, civilians who were armed and took part in the killing. Tutsis were registered, identified and killed in a systematic way. In Rwanda hate propaganda was an essential part of the genocide. It was communicated through the radio, painting Tutsis as inhuman, as cockroaches in the same way that Jews were described in Nazi propaganda during World War II.

The current situation in Burundi
The opposition to the regime is not ethnically homogenous. Also, there have been no signs of the civilian population mobilizing militarily or performing ethnically motivated attacks. Violence has happened between protestors and the police during street protests and, lately, through targeted killings by militias loyal to the president and by an armed group operating in the north is clearly part of an ongoing political fight.

There are three ways in which ethnicity is a part of the dynamics of the crisis in Burundi, says Jesper Bjarnesen.

“Firstly, as a consequence of the civil war some areas, in the capital and elsewhere, were ethnically cleansed. Tutsi residents in neighborhoods with Hutu majority were chased out or killed and vice versa. A remixing has been happening since 2005 but there are still that kind of traces of the civil war. Another historical trace is the continued overrepresentation of Tutsis in, for example, higher education and middle class neighbourhoods, which was one of the grievances of the Hutu rebellion. Burundi has come very far in undoing the separation but that is a still a dimension where ethnicity plays a role.”

“Another way in which ethnicity plays a role is that Nkurunziza’s inner circle is mainly Hutu, because it is composed by the people who were closest to him during the civil war, they were a Hutu rebel movement. We’ve seen the ruling party CNDD-FDD becoming more fragmented during these past six months. It is possible that those who remain loyal to the president will be the old Hutu core of the rebel movement.”

Jesper Bjarnesen warns of simplistic comparisons that take the focus away from ongoing political crisis.

“The Rwandan genocide is often described as a distinctly African kind of conflict. People are appalled and disgusted by the violence to the extent that they don’t understand it. They don’t understand it as a political confrontation, as a struggle over power. It is perceived as something raw, savage, something outside the political competition. That is extremely unfortunate. The Rwandan genocide was orchestrated by political elites, there was a political competition going on, it was not just irrational, savage violence.”

“If we look at Burundi through the same looking-glass and wonder if ordinary citizens will suddenly grab a machete and start killing their neighbors, then we take the focus away from the real problem: the government’s power abuse and calculated violations against the constitution and against the people.

Former Hutu rebel leader Pierre Nkurunziza recently won a third term as president. The US and others said that the election lacked credibility. Nkurunziza and his supporters put down political resistance, street protests, an attempted coup and an attack by a newly formed rebel group – as well as defied international calls for postponement. The crisis has displaced more than 150 000 people and left more than 100 dead.

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