Background of the Forgotten Humanitarian Conflict in Burundi

Burundi is a country both full of resources as well as suffering, land-locked in the Central Eastern African lake region. Recurrent ethnic conflicts and civil wars have marked the land as well as its population. Despite its fertile soil, the large sweet-water Tangayika lake and its well-established agricultural tradition, food security, health care and per-capita income have plummeted in the past years.

When President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would be running for a third term of office in April 2015, it led to an internal crisis that lasts to this day. A year before, in March 2014 and with just a thin majority, the National Assembly had struck down a law allowing changes to be made to the constitution that would have enabled the president to run for a further term. The peace agreement of Arusha, the basis of Burundi’s constitution, only allows two terms of office. In the end, the Supreme Court of Burundi did not declare the third presidential term as unconstitutional, as the president hadn’t been elected directly by the people in his first term. The protests after his announcement were followed by bloody clashes between the government and the opposition. The situation has further escalated ever since the president was once again elected into office. Just since April 2015, over 400,000 people have left Burundi and now live in refugee camps in neighboring countries. Meanwhile, Pierre Nkurunziza has already announced his candidacy for a fourth term.

While the governing party insists it is acting in the interest of the people, there are reports by local and international human rights organizations that demonstrate otherwise. Apart from daily incidents of torture, robbery, sexual violence, kidnappings and extrajudicial execution, the encumbered negotiation process at the national and international level is giving way to fear that an irreversible cycle of violence is developing. The country is increasingly isolating itself from the international community.

Those who suffer and are forgotten the most in this conflict are the youth, and especially young women in Burundi, who had spoken out for an election in line with the constitution. When the possibility of a third presidential term became known, young people from the capital Bujumbura as well as from rural regions gathered to peacefully demonstrate against the government’s plans. The use of social media, which at the time was a useful tool for the youth to coordinate and make their political demands visible, in retrospect became their demise. Using pictures posted to social media, many demonstrators were identified, arrested, kidnapped or even murdered. Many remain missing to this day.