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Burundi Conflict: Current Unrest is Not an Ethnic Conflict

Before late-Spring of this year, few internationally-minded Americans would have been able to say anything of consequence about Burundi, perhaps beyond that it is in Africa. The country is small, resource-poor, and relatively politically insignificant, both regionally and internationally. In May, however, an election-related political conflict escalated into a military coup. The coup quickly failed but violence between the ruling party and opposition groups has continued. The strife sent journalists and international correspondents around the world scurrying for information on a country they knew little about.

Many of these writers have been quick to reference the long and bloody civil war that plagued the country from 1993-2005. This conflict was, like the parallel conflict in Rwanda, fought largely along the divide of the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi ethnic groups, divisions that were largely a carry-over of Belgian colonial policy. Overall, however, recent conversations about Burundi have failed to produce meaningful discourse over the deep-rooted changes that have occurred over the past 10 years that have shifted the post-war political and social landscapes. Central to these changes are 10 years of realpolitik and power consolidation by President Nkurunziza, who transitioned from rebel leader to president in 2005, and whose refusal to step down after two terms is the root of the current violence and unrest. Changes during the first 10 years of his presidency have transformed the political divide from ethnic-based, to party and power based.


Rebel leader Pierre Nkurunziza emerged as president from the 2005 peace negotiations and subsequent drafting of the current Burundian constitution, a process that marked the end of the civil war. A key aspect of both the constitution and the peace agreements included power-sharing quotas between the Hutus and Tutsis within the government, army, and police. An integrated government coupled with the fresh, vivid memory of the bloody ethnic conflict defined the new political and social culture that developed in the post-war era.

President Nkurunziza began working to consolidate power and rebuild the country’s infrastructure that had crumbled into complete disrepair during the war. Ten years later, however, Nkurunziza has succeeded in securing an iron grip on the country, but the resource-poor country still has the lowest development rating given by the UNDP. To further illustrate the desolate situation of the nation, nearly 90% of the population relies on subsistence farming, average life expectancy is 54 years, and the country was ranked the world’s hungriest in a 2014 food supply index. Many industries are nationalized and over 40% of the government’s budget came from foreign aid in 2014. By maintaining control over the economy and the country’s police and army, Nkurunziza is able to assert power through both financial influence and violent intimidation. Additionally, Burundi remains in the top 20 most corrupt countries in the world as measured by Transparency International, ranking more corrupt than both Syria and Zimbabwe. This corruption enables the ruling party to control not only who has permission to do business in the country, but also of the cost of doing business in the country.


In this context, President Nkurinziza’s ruling party holds a de facto monopoly on power and control, both politically and economically. And, with the ethnic integration of political parties, the military, and law enforcement, the defining features of Burundian political and economic life have shifted from an ethnic paradigm to a party-driven one. Like in Rwanda, asking whether a Burundian is a Hutu or a Tutsi is a serious cultural faux pas. One opposition leader summarized the difference in the current unrest, saying, “People are killing each other based on political orientation. If a guy from the ruling party is killed, maybe two from the opposition will be killed.”

What to Expect

Burundians are poor, hungry, and do not want a conflict that will undo many of the improvements in development that have taken place since the civil war. At the same time, many, especially in the capital of Bujumbura, have formed groups to fight against the corruption and abuse that has forcibly marginalized anyone outside of the ruling party. These opposition groups, however, do not have access to the communications infrastructure, arms, manpower, and experience necessary to pose a serious challenge to the ruling party. Federal police have been quick to arrest opposition members suspected of leading challenges, and the president, now fully sworn in to his controversial third term, has showed no sign of loosening his grip on the country’s power structures.

The most likely outcome of the current situation is a continuation of targeted attacks and assassinations between opposition and ruling party members. As violence continues, and as western governments that support over 40% of the government’s budget respond to the ruling party’s abuses, it is likely that a power-sharing compromise will eventually be implemented. It is unlikely, however, that such a compromise will result in a significant shift in power away from the president during the next five years. Unless assassinations and unrest escalate, little will change, postponing the next big test for the country to 2020, when the current situation could duplicate itself with augmented impatience on either side.

Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks

Michael Brooks is an OODA analyst with a strong background in international relations, regional studies, and world religions. He currently works on healthcare and economic development projects in Central Africa and the Middle East. Michael speaks English and French.