As Burundi’s June 26th presidential election approaches, in-country opposition forces against incumbent Pierre Nkurunziza, the African Union (AU), and prominent international bodies are all calling for the vote to be delayed, citing the country’s growing political crisis as an untenable environment in which to hold elections.
The European Union (EU) has removed its election monitoring team from Burundi while the Catholic Church has also withdrawn its support. Furthermore, most of the United Nations Security Council members want the election to be delayed, a position that the AU and Burundian opposition have long held.
So many groups share this view because of escalating violence that shows no signs of dissipating anytime soon. The primary reason for such conflict, however, is not the military or the police, although the latter has frequently clashed with protesters. The greatest perpetrator of bloodshed in Burundi is the Imbonerakure, the ruling CNDD-FDD party’s youth wing.
The militia was created in 2010 by fighters who never completely demobilized from CNDD-FDD’s previous manifestation as a Hutu rebel group during the ethnically driven Burundian Civil War from 1993-2005. Many of these youths retain a militant mindset and are vulnerable to exploitation because they are uneducated and were promised jobs. Prominent Burundian human rights activist Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa claims that the Imbonerakure has about 50,000 members throughout the country.
From its inception, the youth group has committed numerous atrocities, including rape, murder, and torture, and it is widely believed that the Burundian government arms the Imbonerakure to intimidate political opponents and gives them uniforms, although the CNDD-FDD denies such accusations. The United Nations has expressed great concern over the youth militia’s violence and entrenchment in Burundi, calling it a paramilitary organization.
Since protests against Nkurunziza seeking a third term began in late April, the Imbonerakure has played a prominent role in attacking demonstrators and is accused of acting as the enforcer for the president.
Most disturbingly, the youth wing is targeting ethnic Tutsis, causing massive amounts of them to leave the country. In fact, over 110,000 Burundians (1% of the population), most of whom are Tutsis, have fled to neighboring states since late April, in large part to escape the Imbonerakure. This has caused a refugee crisis in the Great Lakes Region of Africa with cholera outbreaks and insufficient resources to care for some many people.
The youth group claims it is simply campaigning for the election, but it has threatened and attempted to kill Tutsi refugees for no other apparent reason than ethnicity. At least some refugees claim the Imbonerakure is waiting for the elections to be over before launching a wide-scale massacre.
One man still in Burundi said members of the militia asked him “why we were still around when our fellow Tutsis have already fled.” Another individual fears that the Imbonerakure will enter refugee camps in disguise “and do bad things.”
While the Burundian government is violating the constitution and dangerously shifting the country’s republican institutions towards authoritarianism, the Imbonerakure are committing atrocities that threaten to reignite ethnic divisions deeply engrained in Burundi and the entire Great Lakes Region. Even if the CNDD-FDD is not arming the militia, perception is reality, and local residents clearly believe both sides have a partnership.
Unfortunately, Agathon Rwasa, the only viable candidate to oppose Nkurunziza at the moment, also has a history of barbarity targeting Tutsis and contributing to conflict in Burundi.
In such an environment, the international community cannot abandon Burundi to its own fate. It is understandable for entities like the EU and Catholic Church to withdraw support for the upcoming election, but the Burundian people cannot feel like the world is prepared to simply sit back and let the situation play out.
Burundi is a test for democracy in Africa that leaders around the continent are watching. With several African heads of state trying to circumvent legally-binding term limits and some populations without such laws advocating for their creation, Burundi could set a precedent of several countries either trending towards democracy or authoritarianism.
What happens in Burundi could immediately affect neighboring Rwanda, where parliament is debating whether to change the constitution to allow President Paul Kagame to seek a third term. In 1994, Kagame led his Tutsi rebel force on an offensive to end the Rwandan Genocide perpetrated by the Hutu government. Because Rwanda has a violent ethnic history like Burundi, it is all the more significant to have political stability in both countries.
With these ideas in mind, the crisis in Burundi matters, and in the words of one refugee now in Rwanda, “Burundi needs international intervention because it is on the verge of total collapse.” The worse the situation gets, the harder it is to contain, let alone resolve. The international community must recognize this fact and do everything within reason to facilitate a peaceful resolution in Burundi where democratic institutions endure.