I fully intended to write a long blog post on Friday. Then the terrorist strikes in Paris happened.
I have to be honest with you: I love France, but I am basically indifferent to Paris. Mostly, I think of it as that place the airplanes fly to where it’s always raining. Except… people from all over the world go to Paris for work. Four of them (two French and two Mauritanian) are people that I care about. Only one has checked in so far. So I’ve been a bit distracted. This is going to be a relatively basic blog post, but I think an understanding – even a basic one – is important.
Today I am not going to talk about Islamism, terrorism, or Daesh. Those topics are being fully covered by people who know what they are doing. Instead, I’d like to draw our collective attention to a crisis in Burundi that has been unfolding since August – in fact, really since colonialism, and more proximally since about 1992.
Burundi is a tiny nation in Africa’s Great Lakes region, an area that also includes Tanzania, Rwanda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Its colonial history includes the Germans and the Belgians. Ethnically and religiously, it is similar to Rwanda, which is to say, relatively lacking in diversity. Most are Catholic, with significant Muslim and Protestant minorities; most speak a single language, Kirundi; and there is real disagreement as to whether there are more than two ethnic groups at all (those two being Tutsi/Hutu, essentially one group, and Twa, the other group). So why have the Great Lakes been in such a long-lasting free-fall?
There are a few clear reasons for the instability in the region. Belgian colonial policy was so appalling that even other European colonial powers sat up and took notice. One of the legacies of this colonial history was to harden identities to accord with a European view of the world, including the idea that Tutsis are closer to White and therefore more civilized, intelligent, and worthy of power. This is why no one is really sure if the Hutu-Tutsi distinction is one of caste, race, ethnicity, or something else. There is no linguistic difference. There are no sure physical markers, as one’s status follows that of one’s father, and intermarriage is common. There is no one thing that can be pointed to, yet everyone knows where they stand.
Since 1972, there have been two periods of genocide and violence against civilians in Burundi. The first began on a small scale as a land grab. The second began with the assassination of a Hutu president. In Burundi, the government has generally been Tutsi, then generally Hutu, and now is fairly evenly divided. Power struggles have led to several power sharing agreements, none of which have taken particularly well in part because concerns were never thoroughly addressed. The Twa, a small minority considered “primitive” by colonial governments, are not considered, either as politically important or as culturally significant. Burundi’s nods toward liberal democracy have been halfhearted and piecemeal. At the root of Burundi’s problems today is a persistent struggle for ethnic and personal dominance expressed as political power. The current president, Pierre Nkrunziza, a Hutu, has been engaged in seizing the mechanisms of government to secure a third term for himself, which he claims is a second term as he was appointed to his first term rather than elected. Unsurprisingly, many Burundians are not pleased. Increasing violence has been reported in Bujumbura. History and regional politics suggest that Burundi is teetering on the brink of widespread violence against the civilian population.
The Belgian government has asked all nonessential personnel to leave Burundi, and for good reason; if I were Burundian, Belgians would be very high on my list of targets. But the international community often errs by seeing a narrative of “ancient hatreds” and by refusing to give a clear mandate for concrete action to protect civilians. Evacuating nonessential personnel is smart. Abandoning Burundi would not be smart. Leaving a UN peacekeeping force and declaring one’s moral duty done is never smart. Civilian populations are at risk. In the short term, they can only be protected by the credible threat of force. In the long term, Burundi needs a system that takes into account the interests of the people. All the people, and not merely those in power.