Burundi’s Ticking Time Bomb

On August 20, 2015, Pierre Nkurunziza took the oath of office for the third time as Burundi’s president. His inauguration followed one of the most explosive periods in this small Central African nation’s recent history. 

For months prior, opposition activists and world leaders condemned Nkurunziza’s third run for office, arguing that the peace deal which ended Burundi’s 1993-2005 civil war limited the president to two terms. The country was seized by protests, a coup attempt, and the jailing or killing of opposition activists, officials, and journalists. 

International authorities – including the United Nations, the African Union, and the East African Community – tried to forge a compromise between the president and the opposition. Yet Nkurunziza managed to hold firm, winning an election that was boycotted by opposition parties and deemed unfair by the UN.

In the four months leading up to Nkurunziza’s inauguration, more than 180,000 Burundians fled the country, fearful that Burundi faced a repeat of its calamitous civil conflict. And subsequent developments have done little to assuage their fears. A wave of assassinations in the capital, Bujumbura, has targeted high-ranking politicians, military officers, and human rights defenders. And on August 27, Nkurunziza declared that his party’s youth wing, the widely-feared Imbonerakure, would work alongside state security forces “to counter all actions or motives, whether within or outside the country, that are likely to disrupt” peace. He also mandated training for all young people, in order to “strengthen their patriotic spirit.” 

Unfortunately, the worst for Burundi – and its displaced citizens – may be yet to come.

Not surprisingly, the flow of Burundian refugees into Tanzania, Rwanda, Uganda, and the Democratic of Republic of Congo has continued. An unknown number of Burundians have also been displaced within their own country. Many are believed to be sheltering with family or friends, too frightened to identify themselves to humanitarian workers. Women and girls are especially vulnerable, with many reporting rape and other abuses while fleeing for their lives, according to aid workers who are assisting them. 

Unfortunately, the worst for Burundi – and its displaced citizens – may be yet to come. Many humanitarians and Western officials with whom I spoke worry that Nkurunziza’s inflammatory actions could kick conflict up to a new level, or even spur armed intervention by Burundi’s larger, more powerful neighbors. There’s no way of knowing exactly how many civilians would be affected by such a crisis. However, one analysis by Save the Children, which used Burundi’s previous civil war as a baseline, puts the number of potential refugees and internally displaced at a frightening two million. 

From a humanitarian perspective, the timing could hardly be worse. As I wrote in May, “Ideally, now would be the time for donor governments and aid agencies to prepare for the worst. Budgets and contingency plans would be drawn up, supplies pre-positioned, and staff put on stand-by for rapid deployments. But none of that will happen in today’s world.” In the words of one official I spoke with recently, “It’s not that we don’t care about Burundi: donors are simply out of money.”

How is this funding crunch affecting vulnerable Burundians? And what more can be done to protect civilians at risk, and prepare for the worst-case scenario? This week, Francisca Vigaud-Walsh, RI’s senior advocate for women and girls, and I will travel to the region to find out. We’ll meet with affected families, learn about their needs, and press donors and UN agencies to meet them. Come along for the ride by following us on Twitter.

Banner image credit: REUTERS.