Burundi-Rwanda tensions may lead to ethnic conflict

Burundi-Rwanda tensions may lead to ethnic conflict

Despite having much in common, Burundi and Rwanda have not had the best of relationships. The political crisis in Burundi over President Pierre Nkurunziza’s third term has further strained relationship between the two countries.

Burundi and Rwanda share similar cultures, ethnic divides and economic challenges. They share a colonial heritage of being governed as one territory by the Belgian colonialists. Both have gone through complicated violent conflicts related to ethnic divisions and are still fragile nations. 

President Nkurunziza and President Kagame have also previously enjoyed a good personal relationship. However, a clash over the M23 rebel group in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo at a meeting of regional leaders in November 2012 saw a marked worsening of their relationship. Diplomatic relations further deteriorated in 2015, after President Pierre Nkurunziza was re-elected for a third term.

In October 2015, Burundi expelled Rwanda’s top diplomat, Desire Nyaruhirira, over allegation of plans to destabilise the country, and both countries increasingly been accusing each other of supporting its opponents.

Refugee flows from Burundi

Burundi is facing a range of security and governance issues that threaten its stability. The economy is struggling due to inflation, political instability and the large-scale refugee movement. An estimated 230 000 Burundians have fled to neighboring countries since April 2015, many to Rwanda, leading Kagame to criticize Nkurunziza’s decision to seek his controversial third term in office.

A United Nations panel report indicated that Burundian refugees, including children, were recruited at a refugee camp in eastern Rwanda and trained for two months to unseat President Nkurunziza. Following the accusations of training and arming rebels in Rwandan refugee camps, thousands of pro-government demonstrators rallied in Bujumbura, Gitega and Ngozi, against Rwanda, on Saturday, 13 February. Although Rwanda has consistently denied training rebels to destabilize the regime in Burundi, it announced plans to relocate 75,000 Burundian refugees to third countries following the accusations.

On the threshold of economic collapse

Burundi endured a 13-year civil war that ended in 2006. It is one of the poorest countries in the world. Amid pervasive poverty, hunger and corruption, the majority of the population suffers from chronic malnutrition. Although 90 percent of its population are farmers, Burundi can barely produce enough food to sustain itself. 

Government corruption has affected the development of the private sector and foreign investment, and the country depends on foreign aid to fund about 50 percent of its national budget.

The economy continues to suffer from instability over Nkurunziza’s controversial third term as trade with regional markets has been severely disrupted. The insecurity also affects projects as international donors and aid agencies have evacuated many of their experts from the country. Burundi’s budget deficit will only increase as other donors, including the former colonial power, Belgium, suspend more aid programs.

On Sunday, 3 January, FlyDubai also announced their plan to suspend operations to Bujumbura International Airport (BJM) from 19 January, due to a significant fall in inbound traffic, an indication that foreigners are beginning to stay away from the country. Mass movement of refugees will also affect the economy of the surrounding nations as additional cost is imposed on public and social welfare budgets.

Bujumbura is significant for the trade corridors that the East African Community is developing in the region. If the conflict continues, it could hamper what the EAC has achieved so far, as well as the business environment of EAC countries.

Potential for division within the East Africa sub-region

Political and diplomatic tensions between Burundi and Rwanda could have implications for the wider regional stability. In the wake of the recent tension between the two East African Countries, the Democratic Republic of Congo has also accused Rwanda of recruiting refugees to oust Nkurunziza and has asked the United Nations Security Council to take action against Rwanda.

While diplomatic and political relations between the two countries continue to deteriorate, there is anxiety that the region may split up into two rival blocs. Increased tensions and civil disturbances in Burundi could also lead to cross-border violence.

Likewise, the Hutu-Tutsi ethnic dynamics has potential for interstate civil war involving Burundi and Rwanda. Previously, the Rwanda’s Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo had indicated that the Hutu-led Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) rebels based in the Democratic Republic of the Congo were ready to take part in the unrest and already crossing into Burundi.

Government-backed demonstrators who rallied outside Rwanda’s embassy in Bujumbura on 13 February, in their protest songs referred to Rwanda President Paul Kagame as an enemy whom Burundians are going to “kumesa“, a word used during the civil war to indicate the killing of enemies. 

While Kagame is a Tutsi and Nkurunziza is a Hutu, the current tension is predominantly diplomatic and political. However, if it is allowed to continue, it can turn into an ethnic conflict with the ability to destabilise the entire East African region.

About Author

Tolulope Ola-David

Tolulope Ola-David is a Political Risk Analyst specialising in the political climate and social conditions of Africa.