Can Burundi dodge civil war? There's still hope.
The small African country is on the brink of another disaster — but things might turn out better this time
You may have heard that there's something going on in the country of Burundi, although you may not be paying attention to what, or why you should care.
I don't blame you. This is a depressingly familiar story. You could almost take out the names and it would apply to so many places and so many events. And it seems to confirm just about every horrible cliché about Africa.
Firstly, Burundi is a small, landlocked African country. It is extremely poor — on some measures, among the five poorest countries in the world.
And the outline of why it's in the news almost fits in a tweet: The incumbent president (Pierre Nkurunziza) wants to run for a third term, in defiance of the country's constitution; people are rioting in the streets; the police are cracking down; people are dying; the stench of a coup, or a civil war, or worse, is in the air.
Isn't this all depressingly familiar? And what if I told you that in the background of this there is a history of civil war? And that this long-simmering civil war is mostly drawn along ethnic fault lines? (Ethnic fault lines that were exacerbated by the country's European colonizers?) That wouldn't surprise you much, would it?
In fact, Burundi's history of interethnic civil war includes two (again) depressingly familiar proper names: Hutu and Tutsi. Burundi is right next door to Rwanda; the two countries were one under Belgian colonial rule, and the same inter-ethnic issues that prevailed in Rwanda prevail in Burundi. Everyone's heard of the Rwandan genocide, but there were also two in Burundi's decades of simmering conflict: in 1972 and 1993, according to the U.N. (The first Tutsi-on-Hutu, the second Hutu-on-Tutsi, if you care to know.)
This is why, of course, the whole affair has everyone so worried, but there are other foreboding details: The civil war only ended in 2003. Interethnic tensions are still strong. Socioeconomic problems are rife. (Burundi is one of the most densely populated countries on Earth, and given that its main industry is subsistence farming, that leaves lots of people out of work.) All of this suggests that something like a botched election or coup might trigger a civil war — which itself might trigger another genocide.
As a huge booster of an optimistic narrative about Africa's future and democratic prospects, I've been trying to look for aspects of this story that put the lie to the depressing stereotype. And, actually... there are some.
A big one is that the army is actually staying neutral. Not only has it said it will not abide by violations of the constitution, it has even protected protesters from the police and internal security services. This is a big deal.
One of the main conditions of the Arusha Accord that ended Burundi's decade-long civil war was integrating and professionalizing the army — making it into a modern army that just does army-work, instead of a coup-and-ethnic-vendetta machine as in so many African countries. And... it worked. Today Burundi's army is considered a standout success. A quota system has guaranteed ethnic integration. The army is professional and a standby of African Union peacekeeping missions. This is important. It means that one potentially enormous source of instability is instead a source of stability. It also shows that this can actually be done: that an extremely poor African country with an extremely challenging history can nonetheless end up with a non-dysfunctional army.
But the main cause for hope is that, well, things could be worse. I know that sounds lame. But it's actually deeply significant. Thus far, an incumbent has decided to run for reelection in violation of norms, and there have been protests, and clashes with security forces, and people have died. Ok. That's not a genocide. That's not a civil war. That's not a coup. These are protests.
Africa will not transform into Sweden overnight. The very real improvement of the continent, instead, has been of this sort: Things are less bad than before. Less tolerance for corruption. More resistance to shenanigans. Slightly more respect for norms. This sort of change, being very gradual, has mostly gone on under the radar, but it is nonetheless very real.
Of course, as I write this, awful things might happen in Burundi that put the lie to the previous point. That's quite possible. But if I was a betting man (and, unlike most pundits, I am), I would bet — my hand perhaps trembling slightly — against that happening, and for the country muddling through.
And if I'm wrong, well, will this be a bellwether for the region, or the continent? No. It will just be a tragedy affecting countless innocent lives. And that is reason enough to care.
And if I'm right, well, that just might be all the more reason to care — to care about the fact that slowly, haltingly, but seriously, Africa is normalizing.