Will we only care about Burundi if it is called a genocide?

A few things have been happening in Burundi this year. The president, Pierre Nkuruzinza circumvented the constitution and ran for a third term. The result of this has been on-going conflict from April. Burundi was not a surprise though. Journalists I spoke to earlier this year all stated that regional coverage of Burundi had pointed to something being afoot as early as last year. None-the-less, here we are, with yet another unfolding atrocity, several deaths, an ever growing numbers of displaced and plenty of hand-wringing by the international community.

There are reports of massive numbers of refugees already running to Rwanda in anticipation of violence at a massive scale. A Kenyan journalist I spoke to in March painted a really grim picture of politicians getting ready to cause havoc. These concerns have now been confirmed by reports emanating from Burundi. The police are engaging in a campaign of brutal suppression of protestersSeveral dissenting voices have been thrown in jail accused with the ever nefarious charge of “endangering internal and external state security.”Protesters have been charged, by the state prosecution, with the offence of“participation in an insurrectionary movement.” Not to forget the continual assassinations and assassination attempts by both sides of this unfolding atrocity.

Despite all of this though what is happening in Burundi is not genocide nor is Burundi going to be another Rwanda. Sometimes it feels as though every atrocity in Africa is often seen as the next Rwanda. This does not mean that the government in Burundi is not heinous nor is it in any way excusable. Indeed in May, the International Criminal Court saw it necessary to warn the Burundi’s leaders of possible prosecution should the court deem it necessary. While the word genocide is emotive and seen as necessary whenever world opinion needs to be influenced, it complicates the situation on the ground as well. In Burundi, this complication is been based on how to define the perpetrators and victims; if it’s a genocide, who is the targeted group and who exactly is the perpetrator of said genocide?

There is also an implication (whenever we are quick to label a conflict genocide) that the international community only cares about genocide. Must atrocities in African countries be called genocide for the world to care?

What is happening in Burundi is a power grab by a cabal of politicians who decided to go against the spirit of the Arusha peace agreement of 2000, which was meant to end years of civil conflict. This implies, therefore, that one way to solve it would be through a political process and dialogue. A process that should include targeted sanctions by the international community and a cessation of foreign aid. Another troubling issue has been the inertia by regional bodies, such as the African Union and the East African Community, both of which have been largely peripheral at best. The world needs to pay attention to Burundi, not because it could be the ‘next Rwanda’ or that there is a ‘genocide’ unfolding there. It needs to pay attention because what happens in Burundi and to Burundians also affects its neighboring countries. If there is anything we should know by now, it is that conflicts in this region have historically tended to spill over national boundaries with disastrous effects. Additionally, we should care because of our shared humanity, which is what binds us.

Wahutu Siguru is Badzin Fellow in Holocaust and Genocide Studies and PhD candidate in the Sociology department at the University of Minnesota. Siguru’s research interests are in the Sociology of Media, Genocide, Mass Violence and Atrocities (specifically on issues of representation of conflicts in Africa such as Darfur and Rwanda), Collective Memory, and perhaps somewhat tangentially Democracy and Development in Africa. 

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