Lessons of the Past

Is This Nation on the Verge of Rwanda-Style Genocide?

A recently created African army, aimed at preventing another Rwandan-like atrocity, could see action in Burundi, which is on the verge of ‘possible genocide.’

11.17.15 6:00 AM ET

Nairobi, KENYA — When Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire was informed he was leading a United Nations peacekeeping force to Rwanda in 1993, he replied, according to his memoir, “Rwanda, that’s somewhere in Africa, isn’t it?”

The peacekeeping force that Dallaire lead was hamstrung by its lack of resources and political will from Western nations. Roughly 800,000 people were killed in 100 days during the Rwandan genocide.

On Friday, African leaders requested that the East African Standby Force—the regional component of a continent-wide army created out of the failure to stop the genocide in Rwanda— expedite preparations to enter Burundi. It’s the first time the force could be deployed, and would be a major test for the new paradigm of security on the continent: African solutions for African problems.

Since Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would run for a third term in April, the East African nation has been upended by a slew of politically motivated killings, and the British Ambassador to the United Nations warned last week of a “possible genocide” in the country.

At least 240 people have been killed in Burundi since April, and government officials have used the phrase “go to work”— the same inflammatory language Hutu leaders used in the run-up to the Rwandan genocide. The most recent rise in tension occurred after a senior government official was assassinated, and security forces started going door-to-door to confiscate weapons.

In the capital, Bujumbura, residents on Monday described sporadic gunfire near the town center.

“People who are being killed are killed for political reasons. They are targeted according to their political parties. Otherwise if you are politically neutral you are safe everywhere” said a Burundian who wished to remain anonymous.

While the conflict appears to be between supporters and opponents of Nkurunziza, experts worry that it could evolve into a conflict based around ethnic affiliation.

“Even the internal violence is not at the point of ’94, ’95, ’96, its not even at the same level as elections in 2010” said Steve McDonald, a Public Policy Scholar at the Wilson Center. “If it did devolve into an ethnic driven confrontation in Burundi, it could go wider. [Rwandan President Paul] Kagame is playing a really dangerous role on his part in terms of supporting some ethnic—that is Tutsi of course—elements (In Burundi), and also with how sensitive things are in the Congo.”

After ethnic tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi population boiled over and resulted in one of the worst humanitarian disasters of the 20th century in Rwanda, African leaders said they would not let it happen again. They would never again wait on Western countries to solve conflicts on their continent if they could help it, and leaders created the African Union to build political cohesion, and the African Standby Force to prevent another atrocity.

It is perhaps a cruel historical test that the force could be first deployed in Burundi. The ethnic composition and history of Rwanda and Burundi are intertwined due to a shared legacy of Belgian colonial rule. Both countries have a Hutu majority population and a Tutsi minority. If the African Standby Force is deployed, it will be because Burundi is on the verge of deteriorating into an ethnic conflict like the Rwandan genocide.

African-led forces have found success during security operations on their own continent, having been more effective than their Western counterparts during the operation in Somalia, for example. But intervention in Burundi would be like a final test for the leaders who watched Rwanda descend into chaos.

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“The memories for what happened in Rwanda are there, [Burundi and Rwanda] are neighbors, and it is a similar situation, the ethnicization of this problem. But the trend seems to be that the African Union this time doesn’t want to be flat-footed as it happened in Rwanda,” said Bethwel Kiplagat, the former Kenyan Ambassador to France and the United Kingdom. “I can’t see any political obstacle, any member of that committee saying ‘No, we must not send any forces.’”

The African Standby Force is split up into five regional bodies, and in the East African division there are roughly 5,000 troops from 10 countries including Burundi, Rwanda, Kenya, and Ethiopia. After six years of delay, the East African division became fully operational in December of 2014.

Speaking from the East African brigade’s headquarters in Nairobi on Friday, head of administration Col. Peter Kalimba said that the force is able to enter Burundi within 14 days. A team of African Union officials are currently in Bujumbura and will give an assessment of whether it is appropriate to deploy a peacekeeping force, which needs approval from either the African Union’s Peace and Security Council or the United Nations Security Council.

An official from the African Union said privately that the current contingency plan to intervene in Burundi would involve roughly 800 troops, and said that they would only deploy peacekeepers if the situation in Burundi devolves into an ethnic conflict.

Security experts question if the force can effectively integrate armies from different countries, and speculate whether they can truly deploy within a fortnight.

“Even if the forces are prepared, they need a lot of resources and things that have to be done to become fully operational,” said Ibrahim Gambari, the former Under-Secretary-General for Political Affairs at the United Nations.

The troops that each nation contributes in all likelihood will not have previously trained together, and the command structure is unclear. The African Standby Force also has no airlift capacity, and NATO provided transportation during a previous training mission. The African Union does not have the budget to deploy the peacekeeping force, and would rely on Western financial assistance.

An internal report by the African Union conducted in 2013 found that the biggest constraint to the African Standby Force was the inability to fund its own operations.

“The AU (African Union) cannot make its own independent decisions regarding the mandate, scope, size and duration of its peace operations, as long as it is dependent on external partners to cover the cost of its peace operations,” the report said.

“If we deploy, the peace that comes will also benefit the West. We are ready to die, but we need a little help,” said Benediste Hoareau, head of political affairs of the East African Standby Force.

With the breakdown of African nations like Rwanda, Somalia, and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the last decade of the 20th century, a continent-wide standing army seemed critical. Yet even if an African force that aims to prevent atrocities relies on Western financing and transportation today, it is a sign that African nations are serious about securing their own continent in the future.

Speaking to military officers earlier this year in Rwanda, and more aware of the intricacies of East Africa and leading a peacekeeping force than he was when he first arrived in 1994, Dallaire said that African conflicts need African solutions according to local media.

“I think that nations have got to build the regional capability to handle security challenges of the region. I think the first priority is to build your own capacity and seek that. The Africa Standby Force has to be an effective force to be the first to transit in,” Dallaire said.