Burundi Must Learn the Lessons of Rwanda to Avoid Genocide

Updated | France submitted a draft resolution at the U.N. Security Council this week that called for the imposition of sanctions against Burundian officials who appeared to be inciting the commission of "atrocity crimes"—that is, war crimes, crimes against humanity and perhaps even genocide.

The submission echoed concerns articulated by several informed observers, including the U.N.'s Special Adviser for the Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, and the International Crisis Group, which has noted parallels between the current situation in Burundi and that in Rwanda in 1994, which ended in genocide.

But is Burundi the next Rwanda? Government officials in Burundi bristled at the comparison. Presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe said, "There will be no war or genocide," while maintaining that the government was trying to suppress "acts of terrorism, as with al-Shabab in Somalia."

Nyamitwe's protests ring a little hollow. More than 240 civilians have been killed in political violence since April, when Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza first introduced plans—since consummated via a boycotted election after a failed military coup—to run for a third term as president. The proposal violated the county's decade-old constitution, which was in turn founded on the fragile principles of the Arusha Agreement that had provided a tentative post-conflict blueprint for former enemies to share, divide, and rotate power.

Parallels with Rwanda can be striking but are sometimes as superficial as their regional proximity to one another. Consider the common ethnic demographics: In both countries, the ethnic groups of Hutus and Tutsis—the ethnicities that defined the Rwandan conflict, which ultimately resulted in the genocide of at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus—comprise 99 percent of the population, with the Hutus being five-to-six times more numerous. But the differences between the two countries matter as well. Ethnicity has a different meaning: In Burundi, long-standing intra-ethnic divides make rapid ethnic mobilization for violence more difficult.

Another partial parallel: In Rwanda, the onset of genocidal violence also accompanied the collapse of a post-war power-sharing agreement, coincidentally also named for the Tanzanian city of Arusha in which they were brokered. Here, again, the differences are important as well. Power-sharing endured for over a decade in Burundi, while in Rwanda it was never even implemented in the first place. The blueprint for political cooperation was purely hypothetical in Rwanda in 1994, while it has a real, recent, and accessible antecedent in Burundi.

While these similarities are thus not as strong as they initially appear, they are nevertheless underpinned by a stronger and more disconcerting parallel: In both places, violence was and is fundamentally rooted in political conflict. This much is clear in contemporary Burundi, where the third-term issue reflects—as it does elsewhere—a reluctance of power-holders to let go of their office, and of the political and economic rents that accrue to them and their supporters as a result.

A similar dynamic also characterized Rwanda in 1994: the genocide itself began with the assassination of incumbent president Juvenal Habyarimana, who had reportedly just agreed to implement that power-sharing arrangement, undermining his party's partial monopoly on the spoils of office. It is perhaps not a coincidence, then, that the nature of political violence in the past few months in Burundi, involving the cycles of assassination and retaliation of political leaders, echoes the wave of political killings in Rwanda in February 1994, approximately six weeks before the genocide began.

For all of these parallels, it may be the similarities—and differences—with respect to the international context that will determine how the events of Burundi today will be remembered. Here, it may be the difference that is most obvious: The events in Burundi are unfolding in the long shadow of Rwanda. Observers—whether political figures, U.N. representatives, journalists, or non-governmental organizations—have the vocabulary of modern genocide prevention at their disposal because of the lessons their respective organizations endeavored to absorb over the past two decades following the genocide in Rwanda.

They are attuned to coded language like that of an Nkurunziza ally who exhorted supporters to "go to work," a phrase Rwandan officials used to remind the population of their responsibility to participate in the 1994 genocide. New institutions, organizations, and doctrines have all come into being because of the recognition that the outside world had failed the people of Rwanda in 1994, and in the hope that a greater awareness of genocide risks could be a prong of genocide prevention.

Yet here the difference may disguise an underlying similarity. The ability to intervene to stop a genocide already underway depends on the political will to commit resources and risk lives, for the sake of a (generally) far away population with relatively little geopolitical significance on the grand stage.

Events in Burundi may not yet be at the stage where such an intervention is necessary. With good fortune and better leadership, they may never get there. But awareness and early warning alone do not translate into the will to intervene. And with the recent admission by a U.N. human rights official that it is "more poorly positioned to respond to the warning signs today than...in 1994" offers the chilling prospect that Burundi could yet become another Rwanda.

David Simon is the co-director of the Genocide Studies Program at Yale University.

Update: This article was updated to clarify the nature of the Rwandan conflict and genocide.