In Burundi, uptick in ethnic rhetoric sparks anxiety over genocide warnings

Burundians have consistently pushed back against alarm bells that the violence over President Nkurunziza's third term could devolve into genocide. But an increase in messaging aimed at pitting Hutus and Tutsis indicates a worrisome shift.

Jean Pierre Aime Harerimana/Reuters
Burundian police officers collect a cache of weapons recovered from suspected fighters after clashes in the capital Bujumbura, Burundi, December 12, 2015.

Christophe Ndasingwa is well-acquainted with the tactics of the police. As a protester and now a member of the armed opposition movement aimed at removing President Pierre Nkurunziza from power, he has been hiding in Bujumbura after two arrests and more than two months spent in jail since last April.

But Mr. Ndasingwa, whose name has been changed for his safety, says that the police force has not only become more violent, but has also ramped up ethnic rhetoric in recent weeks, pitting Hutus and Tutsi against each other. Indeed, since President Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term sparked the spring 2015 protests, there were signs that the regime would seek to reopen the wounds of ethnically-fueled civil wars as a tactic to divide the movement and stoke fear. This comes as Burundi backed out of peace talks with the opposition scheduled for Wednesday in Tanzania because it blames some of the participants for recent violence. 

The rhetoric from ruling party hardliners has become far more brazen: In a November meeting,  Senate president and ruling party head Révérien Ndikuriyo – a close presidential ally – called on local administrators to ready themselves to receive an order to invoke kora against “insurgents” in their districtsKora was a term used during the Rwandan genocide to incite violence against Tutsis.

“Nkurunziza has radicalized people. Now you have police coming in and saying, 'We'll finish you,'” says Jean-Régis Nduwimana, a Burundian media analyst and human rights campaigner.

Ndasingwa echoes that point: “Last week, police came into [neighborhood] ]and said, ‘We’ll kill every Tutsi we see.... We’ll rape every girl Tutsi,’” he says.

Since the Burundian authorities mounted a brutal crackdown against so-called enemies of the state, the international community has warned of the potential for genocide – hinting at the regional parallels between Burundi and neighboring Rwanda, where nearly 1 million ethnic Tutsis were slaughtered in the 1994 genocide.

Protesters and opposition and civil society leaders have maintained that anyone trying to impose this narrative on Burundi’s turmoil was sorely mistaken, insisting there is no ethnic divide. But amid growing reports that the regime is trying to manipulate differences to foment the chaos, the uptick in ethnically charged language in the capital represents a drastic and worrisome shift for residents.

No dispute about language

Burundi’s civil war from 1993 to 2005 was fought along a longstanding fracture between Hutus and Tutsis, and analysts say the country has come a long way to move beyond this division. But they also say that the government has been trying to exploit  ethnic differences for months. 

“On the government side, there is very clear ethnic language being used. That is not in dispute,” says Cara Jones, a political scientists specializing on conflict in Africa and an assistant professor of political science at Mary Baldwin College.

During the early protests, Nkurunziza reassured the international community and Burundians that the unrest was limited to only 1 percent of the country. To Burundians, this was a direct reference to the historically Tutsi neighborhoods in Bujumbura.

“Remember, he said ‘99 percent of the country is calm.’ What was he saying? He was saying it’s these small Tutsi areas that are the problem, that’s it,’” says Mr. Nduwimana.

Today, neighborhoods are increasingly cordoned off by police and military teams since a flare in violence in early December. They search for weapons, arrest young men, rape women, and loot phones and money from onlookers. According to residents, they use anti-Tutsi rhetoric and accuse Hutus who remain in ethnically mixed neighborhoods of being sympathizers. 

Residents also say there are signs that the rhetoric is trickling into offices and schools, perpetuated by those loyal in the ruling party.

“In public schools, they use the teachers – CNDD-FDD [ruling party] loyalists – to say, ‘people who live in protest neighborhoods won’t succeed in school.’ It starts when they in elementary school,” Nduwimana says.

Population pushback

Though there is no indication that the population at large is responding to the messaging, Ms. Jones warns that both the general population and the regime could be pushed beyond the brink very quickly, comparing the situation to Rwanda: “I worry the population could be swayed in a way that they weren’t before," she says. "Rhetoric and intent can become action very fast. In 1992, we didn't think the Rwandan government was going to to do what they did."

Perhaps fearing a similar outcome, several opposition leaders have been steadily sounding the alarm about an impending genocide, leading some analysts to determine the high-stakes rhetorical game is being played on both sides.

“They have political motives,” says Ms. Jones. “They are using the term ‘genocide’ term and coded language, hoping to push the international community to force an intervention here."

But Ndagiswa does not see it coming to that: “In our areas, there is no Hutu or Tutsi. They use that language to separate us but it won’t work. ”

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