'We will not allow another genocide to take place on our soil' - African leaders vow to end violence in Burundi
African leaders promised to prevent a “genocide” in Burundi as the United Nations warned the country was “on the very cusp” of civil war.
At least 400 people have been killed in the East African nation since President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to prolong his rule by rewriting the constitution in April.
Army officers briefly deposed him during a military coup in May.
But Mr Nkurunziza regained power and launched a ruthless campaign to suppress his opponents.
Since then, about 3,500 people have been arrested – and scores of bodies dumped in the streets of the capital, Bujumbura.
Some 87 people were killed last Friday.
Burundi shares the same ethnic balance as neighbouring Rwanda, where the Hutu majority tried to wipe out the Tutsi minority in 1994, beginning a genocide that claimed 800,000 lives.
The African Union, an alliance of all 53 countries on the continent, promised that these events would not be repeated.
A meeting of the AU’s Peace and Security Council said: “Africa will not allow another genocide to take place on its soil.”
But there is no agreement over how to respond to Burundi’s crisis.
African leaders have offered to mediate peace talks, yet Mr Nkurunziza has refused to negotiate with his opponents, accusing them of an illegal plot to drive him from office.
The United Nations Security Council is considering whether to deploy peacekeeping troops, but no final decision has been taken. Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the UN, warned in a leaked email that Burundi was “going to hell”.
Already, some 220,000 refugees have fled to neighbouring states.
Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, stressed the urgency of the situation.
“Burundi is at bursting point, on the very cusp of a civil war,” he said.
“The carnage of last week confirmed the extent to which violence and intimidation are catapulting the country back to the past – to Burundi’s deeply troubled, dark and horrendously violent past.”
Burundi endured a civil war which claimed 300,000 lives between 1993 and 2005.
“The time for piecemeal responses and fiddling around the edges is over,” added Mr Hussein.
“The situation in Burundi demands a robust, decisive response.”
The UN Human Rights Council agreed to Mr Hussein’s request to send investigators to report on the scale of abuses in Burundi “on the most expeditious basis possible”.
Ben Shepherd, from the Africa Programme at the Chatham House think tank, said the situation was “certainly very dangerous”, but the “talk of genocide is misplaced”.
So far, the bloodshed has been concentrated in Bujumbura and no mass mobilisation has taken place across the country.
The violence does not appear to have spread beyond the capital to rural areas, where 85 per cent of Burundi’s people live.
But there are no real peace negotiations – and no one can predict Mr Nkurunziza’s next move.
“He’s so paranoid and isolated that no-one knows what he’s thinking,” said Mr Shepherd.