An expert's point of view on a current event.

How the West Lost Burundi

While Western powers were making threats, Russia and China were wooing the country's defiant government. And that should be a wake-up call for countries like the United States.


Last Thursday morning, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza stepped in front of a house of newly elected members of parliament and was sworn in for a third consecutive term. In attendance were the ambassadors of Russia and China. Western diplomats had been informed just that morning that the inauguration, for which an official date had not been set, was to take place, and a few low-level officials managed to make it. Their higher-level counterparts would not have attended anyway.

Last Thursday morning, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza stepped in front of a house of newly elected members of parliament and was sworn in for a third consecutive term. In attendance were the ambassadors of Russia and China. Western diplomats had been informed just that morning that the inauguration, for which an official date had not been set, was to take place, and a few low-level officials managed to make it. Their higher-level counterparts would not have attended anyway.

Burundi, a country of some 10 million people wedged somewhere between East and Central Africa, became a flash point in late April when Nkurunziza’s announcement of his candidacy for third term sparked protests, harsh crackdowns, and a cycle of violence in the capital, Bujumbura. Far from resolving the conflict, Nkurunziza’s victory in the July 21 election, which was boycotted by much of the opposition and denounced by Western governments, seems to have ushered in a new more violent phase in the crisis. Tit-for-tat killings of regime and opposition leaders in the weeks since have threatened a potentially catastrophic escalation of violence.

In the face of this prospect, Western governments — notably the United States, France, the Netherlands, and former colonial powers Belgium and Germany — positioned themselves as stern critics of the regime and played what seems to be their strongest hand: threatening to suspend aid, which accounts for roughly half of the country’s official budget, should Nkurunziza go ahead with his third term.

But Burundi’s government isn’t budging.

Instead, the regime is betting that it can withstand isolation by moving closer to Russia and China, making this the unlikely scene of a significant challenge to Western influence in Africa. If this bet pays off, it could set a precedent with geopolitical echoes well beyond this country’s borders. Yet it also presents an opportunity for the United States and other donors to develop a more coherent approach to political crises across the continent.

* * *

On the surface, the current crisis in Burundi was brought on by the decision of the ruling CNDD-FDD party to run Nkurunziza for a third term. (The ruling party argues that the president is allowed one additional term on a technicality in the arguably ambiguous constitution.) In reality, however, opponents of a third term — including several prominent members of the ruling party — are driven by deeper economic, social, and political concerns about the direction of the country. Chief among those is the integrity of a crucial power-sharing system between the country’s Hutu majority and the Tutsis who long ruled the country, to which Burundi’s relative stability and progress over the past decade are often attributed.

Now, that system is in jeopardy.

The product of nearly ten years of international mediation, the power-sharing agreement sought to solve the puzzle that had plagued the country for decades: how to end the subjugation of the Hutu majority while protecting the interests and security of Tutsis. After Burundi’s first democratically elected president, Hutu Melchior Ndadaye, was killed by elements of the Tutsi-dominated army after taking power in 1993, the country descended into a decade-long civil war, which pitted the government against Hutu rebel groups, notably CNDD-FDD. The process that led to the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, mediated by former Presidents Julius Nyerere of Tanzania and Nelson Mandela of South Africa, sought to get to the root of the problem by establishing a rigorous system of ethnic quotas, allowing the Hutu majority in public offices while ensuring disproportionate representation for Tutsis (who make up perhaps 15 to 20 percent of the population; no official figures exist) to guarantee veto power. Crucially, a new army was also created, integrating in equal proportions the former Tutsi army and former Hutu rebels.

Ten years after coming to power in the 2005 elections, for which the Arusha process paved the way, CNDD-FDD (which was not party to the agreement but later signed a cease-fire) now seems to be a less committed steward of the accords. After some small steps to erode power-sharing provisions during Nkurunziza’s second term, the decision to name him as its candidate for a third was seen by many as a clear sign of opposition to the Arusha consensus. While the constitutional prescriptions on a presidential term limit are murky, the Arusha accords unequivocally forbid more than two terms. Although the government continues to highlight instances when it respects the agreement, a statement released by the Foreign Ministry two days before the party announced Nkurunziza’s candidacy suggested that some provisions were rendered null and void by the 2003 cease-fire agreement.

But as Nkurunziza has sped to a third term, violence has been on the rise. Reports have emerged of residents of opposition-dominated neighborhoods in Bujumbura being armed, with rumors circulating of opposition-aligned soldiers and police providing weapons to civilians. Several police and numerous civilians have been killed. Divisions in the military, long seen as a stabilizing institution, became more pronounced after a failed coup d’état in May, and armed groups have since clashed with the army on multiple occasions.

On Aug. 2, assailants in army uniforms assassinated former rebel Gen. Adolphe Nshimirimana, a CNDD-FDD icon widely seen as one of the most powerful men in the country, in a rocket attack. The next day, perhaps in retaliation for the killing of Nshimirimana, prominent human rights activist and critic of a third term Pierre Claver Mbonimpa was shot in the face and neck and barely survived. And two weeks later, Col. Jean Bikomagu, a retired army chief some believe to have been involved in Ndadaye’s killing, was gunned down outside of his home.

Both the government and opposition have condemned these attacks, and no one has yet claimed responsibility. Given the country’s history of mass violence, further attacks on high-level targets could have catastrophic consequences.

* * *

Facing the increasingly likely prospect of Burundi backsliding into widespread violence, the international community has been quick to sound the alarm, issuing increasingly stern warnings of the perils of breaking with the Arusha accords. The response, however, has been feeble and disjointed. Key actors have struggled even to agree on objectives. The United States, for instance, continues to oppose a third term for the president while supporting the Ugandan-led East African Community mediation effort that seems open to a Nkurunziza-led national unity government.

This is due to a number of factors. For one, the African Union, officially the guarantor of the Arusha peace accords, is hamstrung by Burundi’s critical role in AMISOM, the body’s flagship peacekeeping operation in Somalia, to which Burundi provides more than 5,000 well-trained troops. In the U.N. Security Council, Russia and China have signaled that they will block any resolution that would infringe upon Burundi’s sovereignty. And, perhaps most simply, Western countries have limited economic interests in Burundi.

In light of Burundi’s history, the protests that paralyzed much of the capital for weeks after the announcement of Nkurunziza’s candidacy were a relatively promising development, as youth opted for civil disobedience in lieu of armed violence. Lacking the widespread support outside the capital (home to less than 10 percent of the population) needed for an electoral victory, and with leaders who appeared to agree on nothing but opposition to a third term for the president, strategy centered around drawing the attention — and, many hoped, intervention — of the international community.

The United States, in particular, has been a beacon of hope for opposition youth. In the early days of the protest movement, every strongly worded statement issued by the State Department was immediately the subject of excited conversation in Bujumbura. When thousands of students were forced to leave their dorms at the University of Burundi in late April, many of them chose to camp out for weeks near the U.S. Embassy, wagering that the Americans would protect them. And when, some two months later, police finally chased them away from the camp, many students scrambled over the embassy’s wall (and under a rather poorly designed gate) to reach the safety of the parking lot.

The opposition, meanwhile, has struggled to unite behind a single figure and remains divided on tactics and goals. Agathon Rwasa, whose National Liberation Forces enjoy the widest popular support of any opposition bloc, chose to recognize the election results and take his seat in parliament. Most of the remaining opposition, a laundry list of political and civil society figures with limited popular support, have fled the country and formed a sort of interim government-in-waiting, in part because they boycotted the elections and did not have the same options as Rwasa. This group is open to talks with the government, but insists that any solution must include Nkurunziza’s departure — an apparent non-starter for the government — and has not ruled out violent means to that end.

* * *

The United States and other Western governments seem to be left with little in the way of leverage. By threatening to cut aid, these countries have foregone carrots in favor of a decidedly stick-heavy diplomatic approach. Yet withholding aid is a blunt instrument; it can put pressure on a government, but it risks collateral damage and may ultimately be able to effect regime change only through government collapse, which could have repercussions not only on Burundi’s population but also on regional stability.

For its part, the regime has made little effort to improve its deteriorating relations with the West — save for a brief visit by Foreign Minister Alain Aimé Nyamitwe to Washington in June and a trip to Brussels by his brother, Willy, the president’s freewheeling communications advisor — apparently preferring to cut its losses, with Willy telling an audience in Brussels, “We prefer a budgetary crisis rather than an institutional and security crisis.”

Instead, Burundi’s government is making a high-stakes bet: In lieu of Western donors, it is turning to China and Russia. Both countries have made public shows of support to the Nkurunziza regime, attending CNDD-FDD functions and issuing public statements. Their veto power in the Security Council precludes a U.N. intervention and even discussion on the topic, stifled in May and August. And, crucially, according to Burundian advisors, China is said to have pledged up to $25 million to fill holes in the aid-starved budget.

Burundi may have more economic upside than is generally thought, and Chinese and Russian investors seem to be beating the West to the punch. Burundi’s underexploited mining sector is set to expand in coming years, and China is positioning itself to take advantage of the country’s nickel deposits (among the 10 largest in the world). A Chinese-financed port expansion project at Bagamoyo, Tanzania, is set to surpass Mombasa as East Africa’s biggest seaport, and a planned railroad project will connect Bagamoyo to Burundi. Bujumbura’s location on Lake Tanganyika and at the gateway to the mineral-rich eastern Congo adds another dimension to its economic value. The biggest investor into the mineral trade in Burundi is the Kermas Group, a foreign mining and energy conglomerate, whose holding company owns 85 percent of Burundi Mining Metallurgy, the principal operation in Burundi’s largest mines.

Although Russia and China’s political interests in the country seem minor, the standoff between Burundi and Western donors puts this little country in another kind of strategic position. Burundi’s postwar recovery, and specifically the Arusha agreement, have until recently been cited as one of the few major successes of international peacebuilding intervention. Now, with that legacy hanging in the balance, the international community’s limitations are brought into clearer focus.

Much in the same way that Russian transgressions in the Baltic States call into question the promise of NATO’s mutual defense clause, the situation in Burundi exposes a similar inability of the West to back up its lofty rhetoric with action, posing a major challenge to Western influence. By buttressing the Burundian regime against Western sanctions, Russia and China could strike both a symbolic and a practical blow to the West.

Supporters of Burundi’s regime have made it clear that they see their country as a geopolitical battleground. “Burundians are glad to have the sincere support of Russia in the face of aggression (from the United States, France, and Belgium),” reads an Aug. 4 article on a pro-government website announcing Russian President Vladimir Putin’s message of congratulations on Nkurunziza’s reelection. The article goes on to refer to the anti-Nkurunziza protests as a “color revolution,” drawing a comparison with similar uprisings in the likes of Ukraine and Georgia, where the West has backed urban protest movements seeking to overthrow regimes in areas of strategic interest to Russia.

Russia and China are not the only players offering the beleaguered Burundian government a way to edge away from reliance on Western donors. Surestream Petroleum, a British oil exploration firm, acquired exploration rights from Burundi for Lake Tanganyika in 2012. Companies like Surestream offer an investment-based path that steers Burundi away from dependence on foreign aid and toward economic independence. Gains made at Burundi’s revenue authority over the past four years have increased tax revenues, though the second quarter of 2015 unsurprisingly saw a considerable shortfall. While it is hard to imagine Burundi’s government surviving major cuts to foreign aid, the regime does seem determined to try.

* * *

The example being set now in Burundi will have widespread implications. A common line from analysts is that other African leaders looking to extend their tenures in upcoming elections (including Joseph Kabila of the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Denis Sassou Nguesso of the Congo Republic in 2016, and Paul Kagame of Rwanda in 2017) would be emboldened should Nkurunziza get away with it over the international community’s objections. But these leaders, and the complex and unique political structures each are part of, aren’t waiting to see how Burundi’s crisis plays out before making their decisions just months before their own elections. Western diplomats, on the other hand, should be drawing some important lessons from this crisis.

The West’s inconsistent stance on the issue recognizes that not all term limits are created equal. In Rwanda, a key U.S. partner in the region, Kagame is set to go ahead with a third term likely to elicit little more than perfunctory statements of disapproval from Western governments. Indeed, the official internationally appointed mediator for Burundi, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, has spent three decades in power after doing away with his own term limit.

In this area, Western diplomacy has trouble playing the long game. Had donors engaged with CNDD-FDD shortly after Nkurunziza’s reelection in 2010 to encourage the grooming of a successor, the current crisis might have been averted. (Despite the opposition’s various grievances, the major bone of contention is undoubtedly the third term issue.) Instead, the matter was hardly addressed until after it was quite clear that the party’s inner circle had made up its mind.

The United States and other major donors to Burundi should be asking themselves some tough questions. Namely, is this working? Issuing condemnations late in the game, giving hope to an opposition they can’t fully get behind, and ultimately using economic sanctions to weaken a government to the point of desperately negotiating across a widening political divide is not an approach with a sterling track record.

Instead, the West’s engagement with countries like Burundi should be farsighted, encouraging investment for job creation (overwhelmingly the single biggest concern of young Burundians), supporting strong institutions such as a free and diverse press, a truly representative legislature, and a climate in which political differences can be addressed without backsliding into the violence of the past.

Burundi’s case makes it clear that in Africa, the West is no longer the only game in town. Yet the United States and other Western countries still play a vital role in this country. As Burundi teeters on the brink of a return to violence that could reopen old wounds and undo years of local and international efforts for peace, the country presents an opportunity to test-drive a more coherent and constructive approach to Western engagement in Africa, one that could bring Burundi back from the precipice and help prevent such crises in the future, here and around the continent.

Photo credit: LANDRY NSHIMIYE/AFP/Getty Images

Cara Jones is an assistant professor of Political Science at Mary Baldwin College in Staunton, Virginia.
Orion Donovan-Smith is a freelance writer and analyst based in Bujumbura.

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