guest post: explaining Burundi
Today I'm pleased to present a guest post from Cara Jones. Cara is a PhD candidate in political science at the University of Florida. Cara is quickly becoming the U.S.-based expert on Burundi; she is one of a very few foreigners who speak Kirundi and has extensive experience in the region conducting research into the behavior of rebel groups and their transitions to governance. Cara weighs in on Sunday's massacre in Burundi:
As reported by the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and elsewhere, at least 36 people were killed in the bar Chez Les Amis Sunday night in Gatumba, Burundi. At around 20:00 local time, gunmen armed with guns, knives and other small arms came in dressed as policemen with the intention “to leave no survivors,” according to one witness. In the wake of the massacre, the largest in recent memory in Burundi, President Pierre Nkurunziza of the ruling CNDD-FDD (a former rebel group turned somewhat authoritarian state) has declared three days of national mourning. The bar’s owner and patrons are said to be CNDD-FDD supporters.
So who is behind the violence? The media and the government of Burundi point the finger, and perhaps rightly, at Agathon Rwasa and his rebel FNL, formerly Palipehutu. This is not the first time the FNL have been accused of committing violence in this undergoverned border town near the DRC. In 2004, 160+ were killed in massacres committed against Congolese Banyamulenge (ethnically considered Tutsi). It certainly seems that this is the handiwork of the group- there have been a number of attacks on bars and murders since elections broke down mid-cycle last year. The opposition parties, including the FNL, protested the results of the communal elections in late May 2010, withdrawing from the subsequent Presidential and parliamentary elections. I was there last year during elections, and, in my estimation, there were at least 60 grenade attacks during the election cycle and an average of 3-4 politically motivated murders a week throughout Burundi, even a year after the final vote.
The CNDD-FDD government sees Rwasa’s FNL (there are other factions, but they are less politically salient and/or violent) as the only real challengers to their regime. The FNL stayed out of negotiations to end the civil war far longer than CNDD-FDD. They remained an active rebel group until the last peace agreement was signed in 2009- although this was not without a four year period of back and forth: disarmament, demobilization, and then returning to violence. By 2010 though, most observers were hopeful that the FNL would participate peacefully in the upcoming election. The FNL in particular contested the May 2010 communal election results, because provinces (Bujumbura Rurale) and parts of Bujumbura (Kamenge and Kinama) that heavily favored FNL showed to be voting CNDD-FDD. Since then, violence has been constant between FNL and CNDD-FDD members, particularly in Bujumbura Rurale, although there has been notable violence in Bubanza and Cibitoke as of late, both provinces which border DRC.
It’s this proximity to Congo that some observers have picked on- the Huffington Post reporting that “Burundi Pub Massacre: Congo Gunmen Kill 36 in Bujumbura Bar “. Most regional observers would know that this headline is, to put it kindly, misleading. The FNL may have some bases in Congo. Like so many other rebels in the immediate region, they take advantage of porous borders, small arms markets, and ungoverned territories in North and South Kivu. But the perpetrators of the violence are, in my estimation, not Congolese. So who is directing the activities of the perpetrators of Sunday’s murders and others in Burundi? Interestingly enough Rwasa left Burundi in August 2010(because of ‘security threats’), with no sign of resurfacing. It has long been suggested by analysts in Burundi that he is in Eastern Congo, and the assumption is that he is calling the shots on these attacks from there.
Other scholars and analysts have also commented on this story- see Rene Lemarchand’s insightful commentary in the New York Times piece - and I tend to agree that the violence comes as result of CNDD-FDD and FNL tensions. But what will this mean for the future of Burundi? This is a serious increase in the intensity of conflict ongoing since the elections, which is worrisome for the fragile post-conflict and seriously poor nation. The CNDD-FDD could decide to crack down harder on suspected rebels and civilians associated with FNL and FNL strongholds, although to date political killings seem to take place at local and individual levels. And the FNL is not an incapable force- this massacre shows their particular capabilities. But it remains to be seen if they can truly threaten the CNDD-FDD regime and incite mass violence. Although the statement is incredibly trite, Burundians are incredibly tired of war and violence and probably unwilling to support a rebel movement unless the CNDD-FDD government ramps up the repression and the economy worsens. The ability to subsist remains much higher on the priority list- although Rene and others have pointed out that the level of unemployment could lead to increased banditry among youth. If Rwasa and FNL could provide material incentives to these youth for rebellion, there could be a viable threat.
If anything, the attacks raise the awareness level of the many internationals, non-governmentals and crisis prevention groups on the ground that ‘ntivyoroshe’- in Kirundi, it’s not easy going here- and we should be paying more attention to the ‘tit-for-tat’ between CNDD-FDD and FNL that no longer fits that categorization.
About the author: Cara Jones is a PhD candidate at the University of Florida. She studies rebel movements and their transitions in post-conflict governance in Burundi, Rwanda and DRC. She is currently writing her dissertation at the University of Rochester and can be reached here.