Burundi Update

July 30, 1996





The crisis in Burundi is enormous and it is worsening. Burundi is literally the most violent place on earth. For several months now, over 100 people have been killed in Burundi every day: there is nowhere else in the world where people are being killed at such a rate. It is the No. 1 emergency confronting the international community today and we have to do something about it.

There are real issues at dispute, although they are in danger of becoming obscured by the ongoing slaughter of innocent civilians. The only way to resolve the crisis in the long term is to addresses its root causes, which is the exclusion of majority Hutus from key institutions of state and the very real fear of the minority Tutsis that if they relinquish their position of privilege they will be wiped out by the majority.

Since April of this year, the International Crisis Group has been pressing governments-particularly the US but also in Europe-to back a three point plan aimed at staving off the precise sort of catastrophe we are now starting to see unfold.

  • maintain political pressure on regional and national leaders to keep talking

  • clamp down on extremists who are trying to turn UN refugee camps into their own private military bases from which to attack civilians in Burundi

  • we must have a back-up plan. If all else fails, we have to have a plan in place to go into Burundi, forcefully, and stop the situation spiralling into genocide.




A military coup took place in Burundi on Thursday July 25, 1996. The coup followed the withdrawal, the previous day, of leading Tutsi politicians from Burundi's shaky ethnically-mixed coalition government and the flight of the country's Hutu president to the American embassy in Bujumbura (where he remains in hiding.) Early on the morning of July 25 at least eight further Hutu politicians-including the foreign minister and the parliament speaker-fled to the relative safety of the German Ambassador's residence.

Signs that a coup was imminent emerged when Tutsi soldiers from the national army lobbed hand grenades into the marketplace in the capital Bujumbura and road blocks were set up around the city. The army moved in to take over the national television and radio broadcasting building. Shortly afterwards a statement was read out on national radio stating that the government of president Ntibantunganya (pronouced En-tee-bahn-toon-gan-yah) had been overthrown and a military junta installed in its place. The statement cited mounting insecurity and the government's failure to rule as justification for the coup. Pierre Buyoya-the former Tutsi military dictator-has been named as head of the new junta. Hutu rebels are believed to be preparing to isolate the capital and starve the new junta out of office.

The coup has caused some confusion and some disagreement among international observers, aid agencies and governments. There are real fears, shared by many, that the fall of the previous government may have killed off any lingering hopes that some inter-ethnic settlement is possible in Burundi and made a violent showdown inevitable. Aid agencies with staff on the ground are extremely reluctant to articulate this view publicly for fear of reprisals against their personnel. Western governments, under mounting pressure to respond to the crisis militarily have advised caution and preferred to wait and see before they commit themselves to playing even a supporting role in an expensive and potentially difficult and messy intervention.

The International Crisis Group has maintained its view that, as Burundi's crisis deepens, the need for decisive intervention by the international community is increasing. ICG believes that Buyoya's rise to power sets the scene for a rapid escalation of violence and that a massive new round of bloodletting may be just days, at most, weeks away. The events of the past week, since the coup occurred, certainly support this analysis. Earlier in the week Tutsi students murdered 23 of their Hutu classmates as Tutsi soldiers stood by and watched. In the past two days, the army has massacred up to 150 Hutu villagers in what looks like the start of a new wave of violence against civilians. Buyoya has announced a new push against hutu militia while the Hutu militia themselves have sworn an onslaught against the new government which they see as wholly illegitimate.




It is time for the back-up plan. A UN force should intervene immediately. Its mandate should be to separate the factions, deter violence, protect refugees and restore security to towns and major economic centres. We should learn the lesson of past mistakes by ensuring that the force is properly mandated, trained and armed and able to fire back at anyone who tries to attack it.

Already a potentially massive multinational force is ready to go, composed of African troops and put together by regional leaders and the OAU. For such a force to be used successfully, however, three further elements, presently absent, will be necessary:

  • First, US leadership - that is, an agreement by the US to take on responsibility for planning, organising and supporting such an operation.

  • Secondly, logistical back-up-transportation, communications, intelligence, equipment and other forms of support need to be provided if the force is to have the backbone it needs to succeed in the difficult circumstances it will face.

  • Finally, money - the troops are ready to go, the US and some EU nations have made positive noises to indicate they would provide the logistical back-up, but this operation will not get off the ground if no-one is prepared to step forward and help pay for it.

ICG President Nicholas Hinton says: "ICG is launching an appeal to the countries of Europe, North America, Australia, New Zealand and the rest of the developed world to chip in however much is necessary to pay for this intervention. If you don't do it, you will face a much greater cost in the coming months as Burundi spirals into genocidal chaos and massive humanitarian aid programs become necessary to help repair the damage. More to the point, if we don't do what is blatantly within our power to help stop a blood-bath overtaking Burundi we will have the deaths of hundreds of thousands on our consciences. It happened last time in Rwanda and afterwards everyone said "We didn't know it was happening" or "We didn't know what to do." Well today, in Burundi, we do know what is happening and there is something we can do to stop it".

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