A provocation on Burundi

While I am not an expert on Burundi, I, like many others right now, am watching with dismay as violence in the country continues. My recent research has been on atrocity endings and Burundi today echoes with one finding from my work: the difference between halting (or in this case forestalling) mass atrocities and advancing democratization. These two valuable endeavors, history informs us, are not the same. While clearly strongly institutionalized democracies are the best system for protecting civilians from mass violence inflicted by their own government, the timeline, processes and priorities of mass violence and institutionalizing democracy are not the same, and in some cases, they can work at odds with each other.

From the vantage point of comparative study of atrocity endings, the most potent factor is to stabilize the political situation, removing as many uncertainties as are possible, while increasing pressure to protect civilians from violence. The task: clarify the political issues and forge international (especially regional) consensus, while increasing pressure and specificity of demands regarding the patterns of violence, and adding resources to support the actual work of protection, be it international monitors, police or military units.

So how might this apply to Burundi? Stabilizing and clarifying the political situation is not the same as expanding the arena for democratization, which often includes more uncertainties, ambiguities and diverse voices. Efforts to deepen democratic practice and atrocity prevention part ways at some along the continuum when violence is underway. If stabilization and ending political uncertainty are the critical ingredients for atrocity prevention when violence is on-going and seems likely to escalate, as many believe is the case in Burundi, then fully recognizing the electoral triumph of Pres. Nkurunziza is necessary. Calm his fears that international efforts in the name of protection are not actually regime change efforts. Such an approach may be unsavory, but it is not illegitimate. Here is why:

It is my understanding that the President’s party, the CNDD, would have won the presidential election with whichever candidate they put forward. In short, they had the votes.

While the maneuvering that Nkurunziza engaged in to find a legal loophole allowing him to seek a third term would not likely hold up under any neutral scrutiny of the key documents (the Arusha Acccords and the constitution), he did maneuver through the existing foundational documents and institutions. The constitutional court, which reviewed his third term arguments, was undoubtedly biased as the judges are presidential appointees, but that is not a situation he created, that is the structure of Burundi’s system. He did win an election, yes, a deeply flawed election, but one where some opposition members did manage to win or hold their seats as well. As a colleague pointed out to me, in Senegal, the president attempted a similar move by seeking an arguably illegal additional term, but he did not have the votes, so ran and lost the election. Burundi’s opposition could not achieve this.

The political opposition, in short, did not have the votes. This does not mean they deserve to be politically excommunicated—or brutalized as has happened with some–but it does mean their efforts to shift the conversation about legitimacy to extra-systemic political and military action is at least as illegitimate as the President’s third term, if not more. They have abandoned the pretense of following the rules, whereas he warped the existing rules.

Outside pressure and threats of military intervention to overturn even controversial and flawed elections, when the opposition did not have the votes to win in any case, is a deeply problematic position. Yet this is the undercurrent of U.S., other western states’ and the AU’s approach to Burundi. In the name of genocide prevention, “not another Rwanda,” the glimmer of intervention and remaining ambiguity in international positions on the elections is arguably likely to increase and prolong the period of violence.

One option that errs on the side of atrocities prevention would be to recognize the results of the elections as they stand. This need not by any means translate into carte blanche for Nkurunziza. His comments that seemed to signal willingness to abandon the historical accommodation enshrined in the Arusha Accords should be countered with resolute opposition by the international community. It is time, the message should be, to return to and re-validate the institutions established as the foundation of Burundi’s post-conflict dispensation as the very ones to pave the way for Burundi’s political future. In other words, it is time for everyone, internationals and the opposition included, to return to politics without relying on trump cards.

Further, ethnic polarization in public discourse should be unequivocally denounced. More than denouncing the inflammatory speech, Burundi’s political leaders should be responsible for issuing statements that intentionally calm violence. Any efforts to stabilize the political situation should be accompanied by fervent pressure that the leaders who benefit act like real leaders.

Would such a program help correct the distortion of democratic institutions initiated by the President’s bid for a third term? No, I do not think it does. This harm has been done, but it is unclear to me how it could be undone by caveat at this point without considerably more violence than what we’ve already seen.

Deepening democratic processes is not a crisis-driven endeavor. Democracy is nothing if not systemic—a set of practices that get worn into the regular course of political contention, channeled through institutions established for this purpose rather than routed around them. It is a language of engaged and accountable reform; it lacks drama and requires consensus and community building over the longer haul. For people outside a country who wish to support the growth of democracy, the greatest contribution is slow steady application of principles that return contention to debate and nonviolent organizing.

We do not see such an approach at present regarding presidential term limits in Africa from the AU or the wider international community, which has responded to various efforts to alter constitutions as if each case could be entirely isolated from every other case. Absent systemic and predictable responses, and given the very real and apparently escalating threat of widespread violence in Burundi, an atrocities prevention approach that errs on the side of stability would be more realizable than one predicated on ‘fixing’ democracy through crisis intervention.

Bridget Conley is an Associate Research Professor at The Fletcher School, Tufts University, and leads WPF’s research programs on atrocity response and incarceration. She works closely with the Executive Director on project development, fundraising and strategic vision for WPF. Currently, her primary research focus concerns the implications of American mass incarceration for local, national and international policies.

She also leads our program on mass atrocities and was a researcher on the mass starvation program. The author of Memory from the Margins: Ethiopia’s Red Terror Martyrs Memorial Museum (Palgrave 2019); co-editor of Accountability for Starvation: Testing the Limits of the Law (Oxford University Press, 2021), and editor of How Mass Atrocities End: Studies from Guatemala, Burundi, Indonesia, the Sudans, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Iraq (Cambridge University Press 2016), she has also published on starvation crimes, the 1992 – 1995 war in Bosnia, mass atrocities and genocide, and how museums can engage on human rights issues.

At Fletcher, Prof. Conley teaches ‘Understanding Mass Atrocities’ and ‘Contemporary Critical Theory and International Issues.’ She also teaches undergraduate courses with Tufts University Prison Initiative of Tisch College (TUPIT).

She previously worked as Research Director for the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum’s Committee on Conscience, where she led the Museum’s research and projects on contemporary threats of genocide, where she produced multimedia public outreach materials, formulated positions on contemporary threats of genocide, and curated exhibitions.

She received a PhD in Comparative Literature from Binghamton University in 2001. When she is not in the office, she is happiest with her family or on a mountain summit.

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