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Burundi on Edge as Disarmament Deadline Passes

NAIROBI — Security forces went door-to-door in the Burundian capital of Bujumbura on Sunday to enforce a disarmament deadline that diplomats and analysts warned could tip the already fraught security situation over the edge into widespread violence. Hundreds of soldiers and police deployed to opposition strongholds in Bujumbura, many of which had emptied out ahead of ...

A man is detained by a Burundi policeman  during a scuffle with residents angered by a search operation in the of the Cibitoke neighbourhood of Bujumbura on June 27, 2015.  Burundi's ambassador to the United Nations said Friday that elections will go ahead as planned next week, despite the opposition vowing to boycott the polls and the US withdrawing its assistance. Parliamentary elections are set to be held on June 29, 2015 and a presidential vote on July 15, despite months of turmoil sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid for a third term in office.  AFP PHOTO/MARCO LONGARI        (Photo credit should read MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)
A man is detained by a Burundi policeman during a scuffle with residents angered by a search operation in the of the Cibitoke neighbourhood of Bujumbura on June 27, 2015. Burundi's ambassador to the United Nations said Friday that elections will go ahead as planned next week, despite the opposition vowing to boycott the polls and the US withdrawing its assistance. Parliamentary elections are set to be held on June 29, 2015 and a presidential vote on July 15, despite months of turmoil sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza's bid for a third term in office. AFP PHOTO/MARCO LONGARI (Photo credit should read MARCO LONGARI/AFP/Getty Images)

NAIROBI — Security forces went door-to-door in the Burundian capital of Bujumbura on Sunday to enforce a disarmament deadline that diplomats and analysts warned could tip the already fraught security situation over the edge into widespread violence.

Hundreds of soldiers and police deployed to opposition strongholds in Bujumbura, many of which had emptied out ahead of the Saturday night deadline set by embattled President Pierre Nkurunziza. Those caught with weapons after midnight risked being “dealt with as enemies of the nation,” the president said on Nov. 2. Thousands of people fled Bujumbura over the weekend in order to avoid being caught up in the security sweep.

Burundi was plunged into turmoil back in April, when Nkurunziza defied nationwide protests and sought a constitutionally questionable third term in office. He was re-elected with 69 percent of the vote in the July elections, which were roundly condemned by the international community.

Since then, anti-government protests have hardened into armed opposition, with tit-for-tat killings roiling the capital for months. The government has cracked down on opponents, shuttering local media houses, detaining and torturing protesters and activists, and allegedly carrying out a spate of extrajudicial killings. According to the United Nations, at least 200 people have been killed since April and roughly 200,000 have fled the country.

The ultimatum from Nkurunziza marked a potential turning point in the conflict, with Western diplomats warning of the possibility of mass atrocities. “The United States expresses its extreme concern that the five-day ultimatum issued by the president will trigger widespread violence beginning this coming weekend,” Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said in a Nov. 5 statement.

The president’s threats to stamp out “enemies” and “terrorists” are the latest in a series of incendiary remarks from government officials that some analysts say is worryingly similar to the language used to incite genocide in neighboring Rwanda in 1994. “Today, the police shoot in the legs,” Burundi’s Senate president, Reverien Ndikuriyo, said last week. “[B]ut when the day comes that we tell them to go to ‘work’, do not come crying to us.”

The phrase “go to work” was widely understood to mean “kill Tutsis” during the Rwandan genocide, when coded language of this sort was broadcast by radio stations controlled by Hutu extremists.

“The language is unambiguous to Burundians and chillingly similar to that used in Rwanda in the 1990s before the genocide,” the International Crisis Group said in a Nov. 5 report.

Burundi’s government dismissed international concerns about an impending bloodbath. “There will be no war or genocide,” presidential communications chief Willy Nyamitwe told AFP. He said that security forces were simply countering “acts of terrorism, as with al-Shabab in Somalia.”   

Although most analysts are united in concern that an official crackdown could ignite unnecessary bloodshed, not everyone thinks the parallels to the Rwandan genocide ring true. “The current political crisis and violence does not stem from an ‘ethnic’ confrontation,” Christoph Vogel, a researcher focusing on Africa’s Great Lakes region at the University of Zurich, said in a Twitter message. “The underlying crisis is fundamentally political.”

Vogel added that while “Burundi and Rwanda share a neatly entangled history, both countries have evolved differently in terms of identity politics.” Burundians tend to emphasize the importance of clan rather than ethnic identity, he said, so ethnic cleavages of the kind that featured centrally in the Rwandan genocide “are sometimes less pronounced” in Burundi.

“Nonetheless, the recent escalation needs to be taken extremely seriously,” he said.

For months, bodies have been turning up in opposition neighborhoods, the result of extrajudicial killings that witnesses say are often carried out by uniformed police and military personnel. “A frightening lawlessness is taking hold, which some authorities appear to be taking advantage of to justify brutal repression,” Carina Tertsakian of Human Rights Watch wrote recently. “Politically motivated killings are more frequent by the day, with hardly any of the killers arrested or prosecuted.”

Tertsakian told Foreign Policy that Human Rights Watch has documented more than 100 killings in the last three months alone. Some are politically motivated assassinations, some are unexplained nighttime murders, and some are killings carried out by police officers, she said.

“The police have been going into [opposition] neighborhoods and killing quite a lot of residents, many of whom are unarmed,” said Tertsakian. “This is the category of killing we are afraid will escalate in the aftermath of the ultimatum.”

Photo credit: MARCO LONGARI 

Ty McCormick is the Africa editor at Foreign Policy. @TyMcCormick

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