In 2011, I went to do some work in Bujumbura, Burundi. The work involved visiting the departments of Judiciary and Prisons and the Police. Even coming from Uganda where corruption is so rampant did not insulate me from the extreme shock at the levels of corruption within the State infrastructure. For example, while visiting the main prison in the outskirts of Bujumbura, I was greatly alarmed that a prisoner could bribe a prisons warden and go to town and run his errands and come back to prison. So, to a neutral eye of a foreign observer, it was clear that President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government that had emerged out of the ashes of a civil war, had failed to build strong State apparatus and it would be a matter of time before another war broke out.
Fast forward 2015. In May, an unsuccessful military coup was staged against Nkurunziza’s government and in July, Nkurunziza obstinately moved on with the presidential elections despite nationwide protests. According to the United Nations Electoral Observation Mission in the country, the overall environment during the elections was ‘not conducive’ for an inclusive, free and credible electoral process. Even though Nkurunziza easily won the elections, the Opposition parties boycotted the process. NGOs also reported that during the campaign, police used excessive force to contain anti-government protests.
It is now estimated that since April, at least 300 people have died and tens of thousands have left the country. Ugly incidents of dead bodies littering the streets and bushes are a common site. Yet in all this mayhem, the world has largely remained indifferent. Global attention remains focused on the emergence and spread of ISIS terror and the Syrian refugee crisis.
The killing of Welly Nzitonda, son of the prominent Burundian human rights defender Pierre-Claver Mbonimpa, who was found dead following his arrest by police has in a way helped to attract some global attention to Burundi’s escalating violence. Mbonimpa himself narrowly escaped an assassination attempt in August.
However, other than the usual muted diplomatic calls by a few world leaders, the world has largely remained indifferent to Burundi’s worsening situation. This worrying trend is illuminated by the noticeable silence of the neighbouring regional block, EAC governments. It is only President Paukl Kagame of Rwanda who has boldly decried the violence that is steadily turning into a bloodbath.
Even in today’s globalised world, the emergence of new global faces of terror such as ISIS, Boko Haram and al-Shabaab as offshoots of al-Qaeda and the growing influence of Russia in the Middle East and Eastern Europe means America and the rest of Europe cannot keep their eyes firmly fixed on Africa. This is the time for Africa governments to work together and offer lasting solutions to the conflicts on the continent.
More so, the Burundi conflict is an enduring lesson to African leaders that the practice of tinkering with their laws, constitutions, deliberate plunder of national coffers, rigging of elections and systemic weakening of state institutions through corruption and promotion of patronage, breed conflicts and civil strife. We must put a stop to the retrogressive neocolonial mentality that the solutions to African problems lie outside the territorial confines of Africa.
Burundi’s impasse is a stark reminder to what can happen to any African country and the negative spillovers such conflicts can have over neighbouring countries. Burundi must be supported before it degenerates back to the full cycle of anarchy that it only recovered from about 10 years ago through regional peace efforts.