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Protests in Burundi and the Risk of Mass Killing

In April 26, Pierre Nkurunziza, the president of Burundi since 2005, announced he would run for a third term in upcoming elections, prompting protests and violence in Bujumbura, the country’s capital. Civil society actors and opposition advocates argue that Nkurunziza and his political party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), have violated the terms of the 2005 Arusha Accords, which ended a decades-long civil war that saw over 300,000 civilian deaths.

The protests follow reports from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees that “nearly 21,000 Burundians, mostly women and children have fled to Rwanda saying that they have experienced intimidation and threats of violence linked to the upcoming elections.” During the protests, police and militia members aligned with Burundi’s ruling party killed at least six civilians, according to a spokesman for the Burundi Red Cross.

While Burundi is not among the Early Warning Project’s list of countries most at risk for a new episode of mass killing (it is ranked 49th), its history and continued international concern warrant our attention. We last wrote in December 2014 about the potential for the upcoming elections to spark a mass killing episode. While experts disagreed on what type of scenarios could lead to a mass killing episode, they did agree that “the run up to the election might see an increase in violence aimed at keeping opposition away from the polls.”

It is not clear whether the current violence and protests will escalate. According to Cara Jones, assistant professor of political science at Mary Baldwin College, and Stephanie Schwartz, a PhD student in political science at Columbia University,

“ is hard to predict how events will unfold. It [is] possible that the protests in Bujumbura will peter out, and Burundi will muddle through its election season, in a similar vein to the 2010 cycle. However, there are many possible scenarios in which the protests could beget more violence. Of particular import will be how the army reacts in the next few days — whether they remain united and neutral, united in support of the government, or split...”

At the time of writing, international media outlets have described the fifth day of protests as relatively calm. But there’s still over a month to go until Burundi’s national elections, and recent actions suggest the Burundian government’s repression of civil society activities will continue. While U.S. and UN officials have stepped up diplomatic efforts to encourage free and fair elections, Burundian officials have shut down Internet connections and social media sites in the nation’s capital.

In a phone conversation, Jones continued to affirm that the army could potentially keep violence from escalating, but that at this point, the situation seems intractable. “None of the scenarios right now are likely to end in anything other than civil war-level violence” she said. Jones suggested that in the context of violent conflict, specific steps would need to be taken for the situation to lead to the type of targeted mass killings that the Early Warning Project focuses on.

“They [the Burundi government] have cut off any independent radio to the rural areas so the only communication is either government-led stations or private stations connected to CNDD-FDD. And they’re trying to play up the ethnic angle of the rural/urban divide—rural Hutu and urban Tutsi. If rural populations are mobilized along ethnic lines, that could determine the level and type of violence.”

Conversely, a blog post by researcher Thomas VanAcker suggests that perhaps the protests are an Arab Spring of sorts for Burundi. He writes:

“Finally: is this movement just a way of ventilating frustrations that have been simmering over the past years, or is there any potential to really become a Burundian spring, or maybe become the spring board for a new generation of politicians, less rooted in the contradictions of the past? Again, this contribution is not meant to distract from the clear and present dangers that the current situation in Burundi holds, but rather as an invitation to reflect on wider questions and implications, potentially less negative, of the protests in Bujumbura.”

Events are unfolding rapidly and experts agreed that there will continue to be a lot of uncertainty. The Early Warning Project will continue to turn to our expert opinion pool for insight, keeping in mind Burundi’s lower ranking on our statistical risk assessments. So far, the pool’s collective risk forecast has increased gradually over the last few days. We will also continue to post links to analysis and current events via our twitter feed @earlywarnproj.


At the time of writing, a story published in Reuters suggested that the protests were losing steam.

“Burundi protest organizers on Saturday called for a two-day halt to demonstrations against President Pierre Nkurunziza's move to seek a third term, which they says violates the constitution and endangers the peace deal that ended a civil war in 2005. There have been six straight days of protests in the capital Bujumbura, marking the biggest political crisis in the small, landlocked nation in the heart of Africa since the ethnically fueled civil war came to an end. But the demonstrations which started on Sunday have lost momentum in the last few days, with the number of people taking to the streets dwindling. The presidency has called the protests an "insurrection".”