In the face of ongoing conflicts across the globe, Burundi has fallen through the cracks. The highly volatile situation in this small African country has not been well covered in the news and many are unaware of the history and politics that have paved the way for a potential genocide in Burundi.

Tomorrow stands as a potential flashpoint with a presidential vote. As the situation unfolds, here is what you need to know:

Violent protests erupted in Burundi in April when President Nkurunziza announced he would be running for a third term, despite Constitutional limitations set in place in 2005 at the end of the 12-year civil war. In the face of this violence, nearly 150,000 Burundians have fled the country, with at least 20,000 Tutsi fearing a new genocide.


Burundi isn’t new to political turmoil. Like Rwanda, which shares Burundi’s northern border, the country has experienced decades of civil unrest along the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic divide. In 1993, the assassination of a pro-Hutu president by Tutsi soldiers in Burundi launched the country into a twelve-year ethnic conflict leaving 300,000 dead.

After a ceasefire was signed in 2003, Hutu leader Pierre Nkurunziza was elected president and in the coming years UN forces shifted from peacekeeping to helping the war-ravaged country with reconstruction. President Nkurunziza enjoyed several years of uncontested rule as the ethnic quotas required by the Constitution led to a split government (60% Hutu and 40% Tutsi) and a coalition national army.

The Imbonerakure

In recent years though, dissatisfaction with the government has grown after the implementation of new authoritarian policies limiting free expression and assembly. Over 2,000 extrajudicial killings by the imbonerakure have been reported.

burundiimbonerakure2The imbonerakure is a civilian militia made up of the youth wing of President Nkuruziza’s political party. A UN cable leaked in April alleged that the imbonerakure have been supplied weapons and training by the Hutu government.

That cable is eerily similar to the one preceding the Rwandan genocide in 1994 where the UN failed to intervene and 800,000 Tutsi were killed by interhamwe militia forces.

Many of the Tutsi fleeing Burundi point at the imbonerakure as their reason for fear. The imbonerakure is allegedly using threats of violence to force support of President Nkurunziza in upcoming elections. There is no indication of what the imbonerakure will do if the current president is unseated in upcoming elections.

Elections and Violence

In late May, the President Nkurunziza pushed for parliamentary elections amid international condemnation where his political party won in a landslide while opposition parties boycotted the elections. Nkurunziza is going forward with postponed presidential elections despite fears this will only stoke more violence.

Independent experts have put pressure on the United Nations Security Council to intervene in the face of this escalation. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said, “The international community must not simply stand by and wait for mass atrocities to unfold, thereby risking a major conflict of regional proportions before it finally decides to act.” The UN Electoral Observation Mission has made a statement highlighting the human rights violations and restrictions surrounding these elections as reasons that Burundi is not a conducive environment for free and fair elections.

Still, the UN Security Council remains split between those members including Russia, China, Chad, Angola, and Nigeria who view this as an internal constitutional issue. The U.S. and European countries have adamantly opposed the government crackdown on opposition parties within Burundi. The Atrocities Prevention Board, created by President Obama during his first term, has openly stated their awareness and concern of escalation in Burundi over the last 18 months but has not publicly released recommendations for intervention.

What’s Next?

As threats to Nkurunziza’s power escalate, the United States together with the UN and African Union should keep a close eye on the situation and prepare to respond immediately if necessary.

Burundi is a moving target for genocide prevention and only awareness and advocacy can prepare America for action. Otherwise, we will watch the next Rwanda-level genocide unfold.

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