While President Clinton rides high in the polls, his counterpart in Burundi remains in hiding in the US ambassador's residence, the victim of that country's sixth unconstitutional change of government in its 35 years of independence. But President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya is one of the lucky ones. According to Amnesty International, some 6,000 of his countrymen have been slaughtered since the July 25 coup, in which former President Pierre Buyoya seized power.
At the Democratic convention, Mr. Clinton reaffirmed his commitment to humanitarian values and to US leadership. But where is the leadership on Burundi? For months the international community has carried out slow-motion "contingency planning" for a humanitarian intervention - one requested by the ousted Burundian government and supported by regional leaders. A few African countries have offered troops, and the US has promised to provide airlift and communications support, but no one has stepped forward to lead the effort.
Of all of the problem spots in the world, why choose Burundi? Burundi's tragedy is about the worst. Its per capita gross domestic product is $600, making it the eighth-poorest country in the world. More than 90 percent of Burundi's population of about 6 million is engaged in subsistence agriculture. Its population density of 223 persons per square kilometer is exceeded among the less-developed countries only by Bangladesh, Haiti, and several small island nations. Life expectancy is 38 years for men and 42 years for women. Twenty percent of Burundi's urban population is diagnosed HIV-positive. Alcoholism is endemic.
The embargo imposed by neighboring African nations after the coup will only worsen the already dire economic prospects. Food production could fall this year by an estimated 40 percent. External debt, already a crushing burden, has risen to more than $1.1 billion, some 115 percent of GDP. The ratio of debt service to exports is more than 40 percent. More than 150,000 Burundians have been murdered in ethnic violence in the past three years. Hundreds of thousands have been displaced and now live in minimal conditions at refugee camps in Zaire and Tanzania.
The crisis in Burundi is devastating in scope and harshness. Underlying it is a complex knot of tensions and disagreements that prevents political leaders from taking effective action. In Burundi, as a result of the series of coups and countercoups, tensions between the Tutsi and Hutu and their subclans have been exacerbated by political leaders and groups bent on promoting their own agendas. They are abetted by intellectuals who promulgate ethnic myths that inflame hatred and dehumanize members of opposing ethnic groups.
Politicians from all sides have supported insurgent and militia groups for personal gain. Regional leaders, particularly Zaire's President Mobutu Sese Seko, have exploited the crisis for their own ends; and those who, like former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere, seek an end to violence are frustrated by the recalcitrance of the warring parties.
Attempts by the UN to develop a plan for humanitarian intervention have been hampered by disagreements within the Security Council, US reluctance to take a leadership role, and French obstructionism. US policy on Burundi has been marked by disagreements among executive agencies, concern about congressional opposition, and distractions of a presidential election.
Aid from lending institutions and governments has been wholly inadequate, reflecting a contradiction between their desire for security for their assets and the total lack of security in Burundi. Private aid has also been inadequate, limited by the tense relationship between humanitarian relief organizations and UN officials, who have undercut efforts to improve the support of refugees beyond minimal levels. As these tensions are played out, thousands of Burundians are murdered or die from malnutrition or disease.
What should be done? And, given the political reality, what can be done? It is clear that Clinton won't commit US combat troops to rescue a poor African country a few weeks before the election. Casualties to US troops, like those in Somalia, could give Bob Dole the "October Surprise" that he needs.
But the Clinton administration can surely do more than in the past. Last week, the White House press spokesman appropriately acknowledged Mr. Buyoya's recent lifting of limits on political activity, and pointedly cited "additional measures" available to the international community.
The administration should undertake several such measures now, and can do so at little political cost. Clinton should earmark funds to support an international intervention. He should direct the Pentagon to take the lead in recruiting and training an international force of perhaps 50,000 troops and begin assembling the airlift and logistical resources needed.
The US should assist humanitarian and advocacy organizations in dispatching more aid workers and human rights observers and implement much-discussed plans to provide security for these groups in Burundi and neighboring countries. It should redouble its diplomatic effort and press all parties in Burundi to stop killing and start talking.
Finally, the administration should join with the European Union, Burundi's largest trading partner, and with private corporations, to implement a Burundian "Marshall Plan." The long-term solution to Burundi's political and social problems is inextricably intertwined with its deep poverty.
What will Clinton gain? Possibly nothing; it may even cost him some votes from those who see equally dire problems at home. But there is one inescapable fact about Burundi: genocide. It is unconscionable that a president who "feels others' pain" is willing to stand aside while the ultimate pain is endured by hundreds of poor Africans each day.
*James A. Barry is associate professor at the International Institute at George Mason University in Arlington, Va.