In late 2013, after a day-long bus ride through the rolling hills and lush greenery of Rwanda and northern Burundi – a trip during which one of my seatmates, evidently unaccustomed to facing her own mortality, threw up out the window – I hopped off in Bujumbura with absolutely no idea where to go next.
The Bujumbura bus park is cloistered in the back of a large, bustling market – the type of place that is wholly comfortable when familiar but bewildering and a touch intimidating when novel. My Rwandan SIM card didn’t work in Burundi and I didn’t have any Francs (or, for that matter, any French), so I wandered around until I found an exchange rate that wasn’t unreasonable and mimed a lot in order to make the exchange. SIM cards nowhere to be found and a light rain quickly turning to a downpour, I flagged a motorcycle driver, gratefully accepted his kind offer to call my friend for me, and left the park.
That bus park is likely now the site of protests against a leader, Pierre Nkurunziza, who is eschewing the constitution – if not in letter, then certainly in spirit – and running for a third term as president.
It’s now also a starting point for thousands of Burundians who are fleeing their country, to five-figure population refugee camps that didn’t exist just a few weeks ago. They’re fleeing the all-too-real chance that Bujumbura’s police force, loyal to Nkurunziza, will further turn on its citizens; that the imbonerakure, a youth paramilitary group armed with guns and nail-studded bats, will come for them and their families; that their neighbors, terrified of being thought of as “on the wrong side”, may sell them out to either group.
The prospect of a coup or a civil war has increased in the past few weeks, largely owing to military leaders who voiced support for the constitution (and therefore, the protestors).
And so Burundians are fleeing their present and their future, both inextricably tied to their recent past. A bit of history is useful here: Burundi is a landlocked country just south of Rwanda, and shares with it the bond of being previously colonized first by the Germans and then by the Belgians, as Ruanda-Urundi. The Belgians stoked (created and fomented, really) tensions between the Hutus and Tutsi, which gave way to undulating waves of ethnic violence in both countries, from their separation and independence in the early 1960s to the 1900s.
You’re certainly aware of how this played out in Rwanda: 800,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsi, were slaughtered in 100 days over the spring and summer of 1994. The carnage subsided, and the Rwandan Patriotic Front, the rebel army that fought and beat the genocidaires, was left to rebuild the burned-out husk of a country. Over the next 20 years, spurred on by an international community flush with guilt, shame, and cash, it did just that, becoming an economic powerhouse in the region and, in the eyes of many, an exemplar for capital-G Good development in Sub-Saharan Africa.
(Obligatory caveat: Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame and his RPF deserve a great deal of criticism for the way in which they have suppressed dissent, crippled opposition, and ruled autocratically. There’s no counterfactual for how Rwanda would’ve done the past 20 years if the RPF would’ve ruled differently.)
Burundi, on the other hand, didn’t have 100 days of white-hot slaughter; it had 4,000 days of smoldering civil war. At the end of the war, with 300,000 dead, it was also left with a burned-out husk of a country, but didn’t have international guilt bankrolling its recovery; an efficient, effective autocrat forcing development at any cost; or two decades to build.
You probably knew Rwanda’s recent history; you probably didn’t know Burundi’s. The conflict in Burundi was overshadowed by Rwanda’s genocide, and, to the extent that it was news at all, the Great African Wars in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (in which Rwanda played a leading role).
Since then, of the decade Nkurunziza has been president the best thing you could say is that it could have been a lot worse. All-out war was averted and conflict stayed to a minimum.
And yet Burundi is in a really, really bad place. By whatever data source you use, Burundi is competing for the dubious honor of being the world’s poorest country; it is one of the worst places in the world for a woman to give birth; it is one of the population densest countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, with all of the land ownership issues that result; it is landlocked and has very little of value to export.
But things can get worse for the average Burundian, and quickly. In the past few weeks, the government has shut access to Facebook, WhatsApp, and other social media, and shut down the country’s main university, causing hundreds of Burundian students to seek safety at the US Embassy in Bujumbura. Demonstrators have been met with live ammunition, and the imbonerakure have harassed and murdered Burundians around the country.
This is not likely to end well, or soon. Demonstrations continue, and as the election nears, will likely be met with escalated violence. In all likelihood, things will get worse before they get better. More people will disappear or die.
Commentators have (rightly) narrowed their collective aperture to the daily demonstrations and the near-term election, but it’s worth contemplating what comes next.
In the best-case scenario, Nkurunziza wins and Burundi becomes an international pariah; aid may drop off in response, leaving the average Burundian in direr straits (indeed, this is already happening). Unfortunately, as should be obvious above, political uncertainty is just one of many challenges faced by the average Burundian; get rid of it and Burundi is still a poor, landlocked country with little of value to export and, from a tourism perspective, less to recommend it than, say, Rwanda.
In the worst-case scenario, all-out civil war, sparked by an attempted (or successful) military coup, is not inconceivable. Hundreds of thousands would flee to neighboring countries, straining the resources of those countries and aid agencies; Rwanda, worried about its stability and economic growth above all else, would intervene militarily. Economic instability, death, disease, terror, and uncertainty would follow. What little progress was made in the past decade would vanish.
The likely outcome, of course, is somewhere in between. Nkurunziza will win, but a lot of lives will be uprooted, and lost. Burundians will be no better off than they are today. The bus park will represent desperation, hope, and hardship; one of the only ways out of an increasingly bad situation.