Monday, December 21, 2015


A tragedy begins to unfold before our very eyes in Burundi.

Since last week about a hundred people have been killed following an attack on three military installations in the small east African nation.

Some observers say these were just the latest in an insidious campaign, which begun as a drive to snuff out opposition to a third term bid by President Pierre Nkurunziza, but which now threatens to spin out off control as the victims resort to retaliation as the state offers no redress.

The tension between the Hutu and Tutsi in that part of the world is always bubbling under the surface threatening to flare up at the slightest provocation. Fuelled by bad politics, dehumanising poverty and callous geopolitics a repeat of the 1994 Rwanda genocide is never discounted.

"The historical context is long but to summarise, when Belgium colonised Rwanda and Burundi they found dichotomous societies where the minority Tutsi ruled over the majority Hutu. The Belgians amplified this divide – as was the wont of all colonialists, by favouring the ruling Tutsi against the rest in terms of access to education, health and the general economic advancement.
They then upped and left, leaving the fissures and tribal animosities not only intact, but festering, presumably for us to sort ourselves. Well, we are doing that the best way we know...

Post-colonial governments since have been able to keep the lid on by sheer brute force. But these pressures are always looking for release and the more they are capped, the more likely they are to explode with devastating and unanticipated consequences.

Ideally what should have happened is that through stability and economic development, these ethnic divides would have been smoothed out, even eradicated. With stability as both sides become more and more economically dependent on each other for survival, and even to thrive, commercial interest would subsume tribal fidelities.

It did not happen, so the populations of that region find themselves in a perpetual death clinch where mutual distrust means there is always a sense of foreboding.

It has come at a bad time.

To begin with the general international posture seems to be, like it was for Rwanda in 1994, that it is happening in a small place in the center of Africa, there is little risk of a regional conflagration, so make some appropriate sounds, half-hearted threats and let it work itself out.

Secondly, there are regional rivalries that are staying local actors’ hands.
In the East Africa Community Burundi has aligned itself with Tanzania, while the action men of Rwanda, Uganda and Kenya have gone about fast tracking regional integration. While Rwanda, with most to lose by a flare up of those ancient animosities, very similar to the ones at home, would love to offer some leadership – especially military, in resolving the issue, it daren’t do so without a regional consensus, which maybe hard to come by now.

Uganda is leading an already existing mediation process, Kenya is not known for military adventurism and in Tanzania, the leadership is only just finding its feet.

But as if that is not enough the regional actors’ economies are reeling from a strengthening dollar and falling commodity prices. There is little room to manoeuvre in terms of playing a more active role in Burundi unilaterally or collectively.

It is a sobering reality.

I imagine the diplomatic cables are being employed over time, favours are being called in and less charitable words are being exchanged, to see this issue resolved as quickly as possible. Which is as it should be.

It however raises real questions for the East African Community.

"In the event of likely future episodes like this, with the rest of the world distracted or apathetic to  our plight, can we build the capacity to clean up our own mess?..

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