Burundi: Waiting on the West to Change

By Leslie Stubbs

The political unrest and violence in response to Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term, and his subsequent win in July, has the West talking about another mass civil war harkening back to Rwanda in 1994. With “arbitrary arrests, extrajudicial killings, and speeches of hate from political leaders” and more than 200 recorded deaths thus far, the stage is certainly set. This is reinforced as politicians use the code word “work,” which was used to incite the genocide in Rwanda. Nkurunziza’s demand that the opposition surrender any weapons or face a new wave of government crackdowns adds to the international community’s fears. While the conflict itself is rooted in terms of the regime, the possibility looms that the violence could once again descend along ethnic lines.

Regardless of how the unrest in Burundi unfolds, whether in outright civil war or regime suppression of the opposition, the West is unlikely to respond in any meaningful way. Belgium cut off aid in response to the elections, the United States has condemned and rebuked Nkurunziza, and France seeks to impose targeted sanctions against those who instigate violence. Such actions are unlikely to have any effect in preventing the spread of violence. Burundi’s trade is not dependent on the United States, and China and Russia will simply fill the void.

The use of sticks against Burundi to coerce it towards a different path are futile. With such a small gap in costs there is little fear on Nkurunziza’s part, nor enough will from the West to significantly alter the situation towards peace and democracy. Actions like sanctions and removing Burundi from the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act show action and displeasure, but that is the extent of it. The West is simply pushing Burundi into the ever welcoming arms of its rivals and China in particular.

Weapons being burnt during the official launch of the Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (DDRR) process in Muramvya, Burundi. Burundian military signed up voluntarily to be disarmed under the auspices of United Nations peacekeepers and observers. 2/Dec/2004. Muramvya, Burundi. UN Photo/Martine Perret. www.un.org/av/photo/
“Weapons being burnt during the official launch of the Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration (DDRR) process in Muramvya, Burundi (2004). Burundian military signed up voluntarily to be disarmed under the auspices of United Nations peacekeepers and observers.”  Source: UN / flickr

The revelation that the UN is in a worse position to respond to the warning signs in Burundi than they were in Rwanda in 1994 compounds the crisis in Burundi. The African Union is tied up in other conflicts on the continent while simultaneously dependent on the 5,000 Burundian troops in its mission to Somalia. The African Union’s inherent weakness as an institution will do little to react to the violence, let alone prevent it in the first place. Burundi’s best hope is a UN peace keeping mission, however those are often slow moving and contentious to mobilize. Thus far Russia and China have vowed to block such a proposition that would violate Burundi’s sovereignty.

Certainly the West could act unilaterally to interfere in Burundi, prevent another largescale civil war, and reinstate a tenuous peace agreement. It won’t though. Burundi is far from a national security interest priority. Likely more important is how it would look to the international community for American military forces to intervene, without invitation, and violate a nation’s sovereignty. Such a move plays into the hands of Russia and China while receiving rebukes from most everyone else. This is a dicey game to be played and one which the West tends to lose.

Few politicians and policymakers are eager to send in troops prior to violent outbreaks. Preventative care is downplayed, underrated, and simply not given the same consideration. Burundi will simply have to wait until true atrocities on a much more significant scale occur in order for the West to involve itself directly. Only then, at the call of human rights violations with images of child soldiers and depravation, will troops descend. However, by then the damage has been done. Lessons from genocides past are clearly not fully learned. And nations like Burundi continue to be caught in the game of Realpolitik. Policies of reaction as opposed to action will continue to reign. Adding to Burundi’s plight, this happens to be astoundingly poor timing. Between the Syrian civil war, the refugee and migration crisis in Europe, Islamic State, and Ukraine, the West has its hands rather full. Arguably these countries and issues are more important to Western security interests and even still there remains a significant amount of dilly-dallying. Burundi stands little chance of competing against those conflicts let alone in a timely manner.

Unlike other recent African countries who have faced revolts and violence, Mali and Central African Republic, Burundi does not have its colonial crusader to intervene while the United Nations readies itself. In light of this, President Nkurunziza maintains a certain element of freedom to continue to suppress the population and any uprising attempts. The events in Burundi will unfold largely unhindered; all that is left to do is count the bodies.


Leslie Stubbs is a master’s student at the Patterson School of Diplomacy and International Commerce at the University of Kentucky. She is studying International Security and Commerce with core interests in non-state actors, the intelligence community and a regional focus on Africa. Leslie can be contacted at leslie.stubbs@gmail.com or on LinkedIn.

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