Many people know about the tragedies of Rwanda, but much less is known about the ongoing humanitarian crisis happening just south in Burundi. Since gaining independence from Belgium in 1962, political instability has plagued Burundi leading to widespread malnutrition, poverty, and violence.
Tensions have long run high between the two primary ethnic groups in the region, the Hutus and the Tutsis, and there have been numerous clashes between the two parties. In 1993, a civil war broke out in Burundi after the first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadye, was assassinated by an armed Tutsi faction. It is estimated that over 300,000 people died during the conflict and another 1.2 million people were displaced.
Though the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement was signed in 2000, the war did not officially end until a ceasefire in 2006. However, the power-sharing formula and provisions to address the root causes of the violence that were included in the agreement have not been effective enough to deal with instability in the country.
Ongoing Political Unrest
A period of civil unrest emerged in 2015 when Pierre Nkurunziza refused to step down as Burundian President. Instead, he declared his candidacy for the upcoming election, arguably violating the terms of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, as it states that presidents are only allowed two five-year terms in office. The controversial decision sparked mass protests across the country. Nkurunziza was subsequently reelected and immediately began eliminating his political opponents. In 2015, when Burundi’s opposition leader Zedi Feruzi was assassinated, many of Nkurunziza’s political opponents chose to flee the country while others were forced into exile.
Mass atrocities, including beatings, rapes, tortures, and disappearances have since become common throughout the country. Nkurunziza’s crackdown not only targeted people who were actively speaking out against him, but also students. For example, a group of schoolgirls were detained for doodling on a picture of the president and accused of “insulting the head of state.” Since the end of the war, more than 1,200 people have been reported dead and over 300,000 Burundians fled the country as refugees.
Many were worried as the 2020 presidential election approached in May, fearing more violence. Evariste Ndayishimiye, Nkurunziza’s successor and victor of the election, came into office early when Nkurunziza suddenly died two weeks after the election. Some thought that Ndayishimiye could represent the hope of a new era, one where the previous president’s legacy of human rights abuses and repression would be amended and democratic reforms would ensue. Unfortunately, Ndayishimiye was handpicked by Nkurunziza. Although he has not been associated with the political violence, he has promised to follow his predecessor’s path which does not paint a promising picture for Burundian civilians.
While labelled a “low-intensity” conflict, the repercussions of the unsolved political tensions have affected the livelihoods of millions in the region. On top of the political violence, Burundi’s climate has caused agricultural struggles and increased the spread of diseases. Over 65% of the Burundian population lives under the poverty line. 90% of Burundians also rely on subsistence farming, meaning they produce only enough food to feed themselves and their family on a day-to-day basis, with little to sell or make a living off of.
The common occurrence of natural disasters in the country combined with inconsistent weather patterns adds to the extensive food insecurity; one poor growing season could cause thousands to go hungry. For example, heavy rain in April and May of this year caused floods leading to 46,000 people being displaced from their homes. The increase in water levels also increases the risk of water-borne diseases. Additionally, Burundi’s 43,000 refugees from neighbouring countries as well as the returning Burundian refugees puts further pressure on the country’s food system.
Burundi has also faced numerous epidemics, including Ebola and malaria. In 2019, the South Kivu province was affected by the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Ebola outbreak. Although in this case, the spread of the disease was quickly contained, the fear of a future Ebola outbreak remains. Moreover, malaria is the leading cause of death in Burundi with millions affected every year. Climate change has allowed mosquitoes to survive at higher altitudes, increasing the risk of getting the disease.
The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated the dire humanitarian crisis by straining Burundi’s fragile health system to prepare and deal with yet another potentially lethal disease. According to the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), today, there are 2.3 million people in Burundi in need of humanitarian assistance, which represents a 32% increase since September. This figure includes one million children. The Human Development Index – an index measuring life expectancy, education standards and quality of living – ranks Burundi 185th out of 189 countries.
The hardships that Burundian citizens have faced are not widely known. Hundreds of thousands of Burundians have been displaced due to human rights abuses, political repression, and natural disasters, on top of the millions of people within Burundi needing assistance. Despite these alarming numbers, non-governmental humanitarian organization CARE International found that Burundi was the fourth most underreported humanitarian crisis of 2019, with less than 1500 media articles written about it during the year. If forgotten about, a country with a population of 11.6 million will struggle to stay afloat.
In a recent bout of good news, the United Nations Security Council called this year’s national election peaceful and took Burundi off of its agenda. However, the political repression and mass human rights abuses that continue to occur in Burundi have caused donor countries to suspend their development assistance. If the government refuses to clean up its act and the widespread atrocities are not sufficiently dealt with, innocent civilians will pay for it and the humanitarian crisis in Burundi will only get worse.