This article also appeared in Slant News on December 30, 2015 as “Genocide was just the Beginning of Burundi’s Problems.”
On Monday this week, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda began hosting peace talks between the Burundian government and opposition forces. The talks follow massive upheavals in Burundi since its Hutu president, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced that he would be running for a third term in April on the grounds that his first term was an appointment, not an election. The announcement sparked years of resentment since Nkurunziza’s consolidation of power in 2010, prompting mass protests in April, an attempted coup in May, and an outright rejection of the political system by armed opposition groups.
The peace talks in Entebbe, Uganda are ominous echoes of the negotiations that ended Burundi’s decade-long civil war between majority Hutus and minority Tutsis, a deadly conflict that claimed more than 300,000 lives and drove nearly 700,000 refugees into neighboring countries.
But the conflagration in Burundi today is not a renewal of ethnic conflict, and it will not escalate into genocide like it did in 1993. Tragically, it has much deeper roots in the land itself.
The agreements reached by Burundi’s warring parties in Arusha, Tanzania in 2000 led to a new constitution in 2005 that formalized interethnic power-sharing through ethnic quotas. It requires that Hutus and Tutsis split military power evenly, maintain 40% Tutsi presence in the cabinet and legislature, ensure Tutsis one-third of mayoral posts, and uphold an 80% threshold for constitutional amendments to grant Tutsis a de facto veto. In practice, this structure means that Nkurunziza’s party—however authoritarian it is becoming—is, in fact, comprised of both Hutus and Tutsis. The coalition of opposition parties has the same composition. As Carina Tertsakian of Human Rights Watch notes, “it is essentially a political conflict,” not an ethnic one.
The violence thus far reflects this underlying configuration. Since April, an estimated 400 people have died in clashes between armed rebels and security forces. This record contrasts dramatically with the opening months of violence in 1993, when tens of thousands died in neighbor-on-neighbor slaughter. The success of the 2000 Arusha accords is that what would have been an existential, all-or-nothing war between ethnic groups is an essentially political albeit violent competition between polarized political parties. The key is to avoid full-blown civil war between those parties, an outcome that, as US history amply demonstrates, can be just as devastating as genocide.
Unfortunately, in Burundi, the fault lines of civil war have been visible for years. And they are not ethnic—they are demographic and geographical. At 10 million people, Burundi, a country smaller than the state of Maryland, contains more than twice the state’s population. According to the UN, nearly 400 people crowd each square kilometer, one of the highest population densities on the planet. And the nation’s overwhelming density is only growing: the CIA ranks Burundi’s population growth the third fastest in the world, both from high birthrates and floods of returning refugees.
For an essentially agricultural society in which nearly 90 percent of the people depend on property ownership, the growing demand for real estate makes the problem of land distribution, not political competition, the source of Burundi’s deadliest violence. And, as noted by the African Center for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, the conflicts are interfamilial as often as they are intercommunal. Nkuruniziza’s government has only exacerbated tensions by failing to compensate refugees for property loss or empower local councils, Bashingantahe, to settle land disputes.
While the government’s approaches to land-claim arbitration remain unjust and scattered, the roots of violence in Burundi divide brothers and spouses as much as they do politicians. Until the nation adopts a comprehensive strategy for reconciling conflicting property claims, the problem of land distribution will remain Burundi’s powderkeg that threatens to mutate political competition into full-blown civil war.