'Nkurunziza gives us two choices; death or suicide'—Burundians losing faith in international effort

But a new hithero unseen resolve is emerging--that Burundians will not sit and wait for others to mend their country's fabric.

TEN months of failed diplomacy are beginning to take a toll on Burundian expectations.  “Most of us activists are moving on,” said a Burundian professional who asked not to be named. “We knew all along that the international community had no real leverage, or will, to catalyse inclusive solutions and we have been proven right,” she added. 

According an opposition leader, “Burundians will not sit on their hands waiting for outside help…we will rely on our own efforts… this sounds radical but it should be welcomed because Burundians must own our problems and their solutions, whatever those may be.”

Similar attitudes are being expressed by civil society. According to a leader of one civic coalition, international diplomats “are sending mixed signals…probably because they do not have strategic interests at stake in Burundi…and this has signalled to the regime that it can dig in and have its way, even if it means dragging the country into war.” 

“However,” she adds, “the stakes are very high for Burundians, and while the mess we have created does not make international news, it is a central issue for the East African Community (EAC) because it affects member states’ national security.”

The context for this growing loss of confidence in international institutions is a mixed record of conflict resolution efforts, not least a recent high—level visit to Burundi by African Heads of State, during which serious differences of approach were on display among the AU and some of its more powerful members. 

Left ‘empty-handed’

Prior to that a UN Security Council delegation visited Burundi to reinvigorate peace efforts, but went back “empty handed” according to Dr. Marie Louise Baricako, leader of the Burundian women’s negotiating team at the now-stalled peace talks. Baricako, also a former member of the UN Secretary General’s High Level Independent Panel on Peace Operations, termed the visit as a disappointment, and therefore another signal, that Burundians must “find a way out of the crisis using their own efforts.”

President Pierre Nkurunziza and his wife Denise.

Other accounts are more forceful, reflecting a growing belief that avenues for inclusive dialogue are closing. “With peaceful means exhausted Nkurunziza gives us two choices; death or suicide, and we choose death because even if I rejected war, I am obliged to support it because it is just,” said Alexis Sinduhije, a former journalist turned opposition leader. Last December, the US placed him under sanctions alleging his involvement in armed rebellion. 

These narratives of open resistance on the one hand, and ambivalence towards international institutions on the other, reinforce a growing mood of pessimism, even cynicism, among many Burundians, leading many to question the seriousness and credibility of efforts expended so far to bring relief to a crisis that is becoming more intractable.   

Armed resistance ‘growing’

The formation of armed groups, including a new one calling itself Union of Patriots of the Revolution, is a clear sign that the armed resistance is growing and might possibly attract open support from the larger Burundian opposition movement. It brings to three the rebel groups that have openly declared their existence but armed vigilante groups have also sprouted in some of the neighbourhoods hardest hit by the violence. 

Clashes between them and the Imbonerakure, a militia aligned to the ruling party, portend grave danger in an environment increasingly characterised by the breakdown of the rule of law.    

Far less visible though, are a series of tactical innovations by organised and individual Burundians.  When peace talks opened in Uganda for instance, international resources were not readily available to support the participation of civil society representatives. These were generated by civil society and diaspora networks and have been maintained to date. 

With exclusively Burundian resources civil society negotiators have travelled throughout the region, engaging heads of state and diplomats at the EAC and African Union (AU). Many Burundians have relocated from Europe and North America to reinforce these efforts. Furthermore, a growing number of Burundian professionals, among them retired diplomats and international civil servants, have assisted with high-level advocacy at the EAC, AU and UN, thereby giving opposition forces a noticeable presence at regional and international summits.

A diplomatic coup

Another story that is not being told is the role that East African professionals and private citizens are playing to assist their Burundian counterparts. Last November the Pan African Lawyers Union (PALU) and the East African Civil Society Organisations Forum (EACSOF) made representations to the East African Legislative Assembly (EALA) on behalf of Burundian colleagues. 

As a follow up, a four—day public hearing was held in January where East African citizens were called to Arusha, Tanzania to testify before EALA on the Burundi question.  Petitioners successfully lobbied against Burundi assuming the rotating chairmanship of the EAC during this body’s Summit meeting in March, a diplomatic coup for the opposition initiative.

An AU peace effort led by South Africa president Jacob Zuma was riven with division.

“While perceptions of international neglect have hardened political outlooks, they have also revived deeply entrenched Burundian concepts of self-reliance and given full play to the high levels of organisation, coordination and networking that Burundian civil society is known for,” notes Haydee Bangerezako, a Burundian scholar now based in Uganda. 

These shifts in approach are further strengthened by an emerging consensus among Burundians that their efforts in strategic engagement will be more effective closer to home given the affinities that Burundians share with their neighbours.


The UN reports that the number of registered refugees has now streaked past 250,000 with fresh arrivals in the region now totalling 2,000 per week. Furthermore, there was a sharp increase in fatalities in February with a consistent number of battles relative to previous months, and the discovery of a mass grave in Mutakura, an opposition stronghold, bringing to at least six the number of suspected mass graves around Bujumbura. 

Ethnically polarising tactics are now frequent and sinister. On March 2, a local leader was captured on audio as saying: “Hutus understand each other…we have weapons…our men do not sleep…they are always listening…we are watchful of Rwanda, and Hutus from there tell us everything.”

A week later, another recording asserted that: “Hutu enemies are plotting to give Tutsis the power that they don’t deserve.” This echoed a public speech by a prominent FNL leader, now in alliance with CNDD/FDD, who said: “In 1959, Nyakabiga, Mutakura and Ngagara were populated by Rwandese Tutsis, who later on killed our leaders, now these same neighbourhoods are raising insurgents, the offspring of these early settlers.” He was speaking at a gathering of the government’s Inter Burundian Dialogue Commission.

At another gathering he claimed: “Tutsis are liars…that is why we elected Nkurunziza…he should change the constitution because 14% of the population should not have 40 to 50% representation.”

The tone of the CNDD/FDD’s domestic messaging is similarly explicit.

On October 3 the ruling party castigated prominent Hutu politicians, for being “manipulated by Tutsis.” It also blamed the international community for “ignoring the massacres of Burundian Hutus in 1972, 1973 and 1993.” On December 15 the party accused Belgium and Rwanda of plotting to “bring back those who killed Hutus.” 

Buyoya accused

As debate about deploying an AU force got underway, the party’s senior most official called it a plot orchestrated by a “tiny minority.” He also blamed former President Buyoya of spreading “misinformation” about mass graves.

“The history of Burundi is full of mass graves and those responsible will be revealed by our Truth Commission” he added. On March 15 the party accused Buyoya of “spreading lies” about genocide, and yet “genocide is as old as the blood in his veins.” It also warned that “properties confiscated from the majority in 1972 and 1973” were “still in minority hands.”  

Historically, such messaging formed a key element in the larger structure of violence in Burundi. Others include dehumanising opponents, raising ethnic militias, and, the cunning use of cultural imagery. Many of these narratives will sound outlandish to foreigners but they are potent, and touch on deeper, and more sinister meanings in the local context. 

Furthermore, they thrive in the hierarchical and deeply cultural Burundian society which is highly receptive to direction from the top. To be sure, ethnicity per se is not the problem. Rather, it is its manipulation by elites that ultimately invites unwelcome consequences. International actors can therefore can ill afford more failed diplomacy, but Burundians will not be waiting for Godot.

—The views here are the author’s, not the organisation for which he works. Nantulya worked on the Arusha peace talks and the ceasefire negotiations mediated by Presidents Mandela and Mbeki. He has lived and worked in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Mozambique and the two Sudans.

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