Burundi is burning. If the UN, the international community and the African Union don’t act quickly, and prepare to intervene if necessary, the small East African nation could explode into a full-scale civil war that will destabilize the entire Great Lakes region. When Faustin Kobagaya fled his northern Burundi home in March, sneaking through the night to the Rwandan border, he was running from what could soon become another violent chapter in his country’s fratricidal history.As a 10-year-old in 1993, Mr. Kobagaya, a member of Burundi’s Tutsi minority, lost most of his extended family in a wave of ethnic violence that followed the assassination of the country’s first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye. The murder of Ndadaye, a Hutu, unleashed a 12-year civil war in which an estimated 300,000 Burundians were killed. It also helped embolden anti-Tutsi extremists in Rwanda, who, only six months later, would begin to carry out Rwanda’s genocide in 1994.
Today, Mr. Kobagaya is one of thousands who’ve fled the country in advance of its June presidential election — a contest that has brought about Burundi’s greatest threat to peace since the end of its civil war in 2005.Several people have died in political violence here in the capital since Sunday, as protests mounted after President Pierre Nkurunziza’s party officially nominated him for a third term, a move his opponents say violates the 2005 Constitution as well as the 2000 Arusha peace agreement upon which the Constitution was largely based. The situation threatens to boil over, yet Burundi’s international partners have said very little. If the United Nations, Western donors and the African Union don’t act quickly, and prepare to intervene if necessary, the tension could explode into a full-scale civil war, threatening the stability of Africa’s entire Great Lakes region.
Like many of his compatriots now seeking refuge in Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mr. Kobagaya is on the run from the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of Burundi’s ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy — Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD). In recent months, he and others say, Imbonerakure youths armed with guns and nail-studded clubs have mobilized across the country, threatening anyone opposed to plans by Mr. Nkurunziza, a member of the Hutu majority, to seek another term.
On the night Mr. Kobagaya fled with his wife and two children, an Imbonerakure mob had broken down the door to his house. “They told me I was lucky to survive in 1993,” he said. “But that I’d soon be following my parents to the grave.”On Sunday, the most prominent opposition group, the National Liberation Forces reported that its party speaker had been kidnapped. On Monday, the police arrested Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, one of Burundi’s most prominent human rights activists, and the authorities suspended broadcasts of Burundi’s leading private radio station to much of the countryside. In Bujumbura, Imbonerakure stood ready to strike at supporters of the opposition.
The crisis — though only now making global headlines — was actually several years in the making. Although Mr. Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader, has overseen a period of impressive stability since his election in 2005, his party has worked to tighten its grip on power through violence. While the Imbonerakure, a group comprised in part of former combatants, has been linked to the killing of Mr. Nkurunziza’s opponents, its role expanded as his campaign for a third term began to mobilize.
In the spring of 2014, local human rights groups disclosed evidence that the authorities were arming Imbonerakure members and sending them for paramilitary training in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo. Last April, a confidential United Nations cable accused high-ranking generals of distributing arms and military uniforms to the group, which it noted had begun to act as “a militia over and above the police, the army and the judiciary” in many rural areas.
At the time, some observers likened the cable to the infamous “genocide fax” sent in January 1994 by Brig. Gen. Roméo Dalliare, commander of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, to U.N. headquarters in New York warning that plans were afoot to exterminate Rwanda’s Tutsis.
A year later, as Burundi edges toward a precipice, parallels with 1994 Rwanda are not unfounded. Like the Rwandan Interahamwe, the civilian group responsible for much of the killing in Rwanda’s genocide, the Imbonerakure — or at least its more radical elements — appear ready to target civilians en masse. Although Burundi’s crisis is primarily one of politics, with antagonisms crossing ethnic boundaries, there is also an ethnic dimension. Many people who’ve fled the country are Tutsis who say they’ve been targeted in an effort by Nkurunziza loyalists to give the Imbonerakure a clear-cut common enemy.
Critically, as in Rwanda 21 years ago, the international response to Burundi’s plight has been clearly insufficient. Although the United Nations deployed an electoral observation mission to the country in January, it is not designed to assist in countering election-related violence. The U.N. Security Council on April 17 called on both the government and political opposition to refrain from voter intimidation and acts of violence, yet the Council has given no indication that it is prepared to engage more robustly.
We believe that much stronger action is required — from both international actors as well as the vast majority of Burundians that remain committed to peace. Within the country, religious leaders, including officials of the widely respected Catholic Church, should discourage the use of violence and promote the disposal of arms in mosques and churches.
Although the army is thought to be divided between pro- and anti-Nkurunziza elements, it remains a trusted institution and must play a constructive role in disarming the Imbonerakure and defending the right of peaceful protest. Should the army fracture, the United Nations, in concert with the African Union, must prepare to intervene if necessary. In this scenario, an intervention of foreign troops could be the only means to protect civilians from the Imbonerakure, which may collude with factions of Burundi’s armed forces that back the president.
The prospect of a wider regional crisis is also grave. Due to their proximity, shared colonial history and similar social and ethnic structures, Burundi and Rwanda have historically been destabilized by cross-border unrest. Should Burundi erupt into full-scale war, chances are high that Rwanda would intervene — particularly if the response from the international community is muted. That could mobilize anti-Rwanda elements in the region, including the Congo-based Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, a militia formed by perpetrators of the Rwandan genocide that is believed to maintain links with some Imbonerakure members. Eventually, other regional forces could be dragged into a conflict.
Twenty-one years after the Rwandan genocide, as the United States, the United Nations and other international actors still try to come to terms with their failure to act in the face of horrific violence, they must not underestimate the severity of the crisis that once again is brewing in the region.
* Jean Claude Nkundwa is a peace activist in Bujumbura. Jonathan W. Rosen is a journalist based in Rwanda. A version of this op-ed appears in print on April 29, 2015, in The International New York Times.