Burundi on the brink: what happened to early warning?

Published: 18 Jun 2015
By: David Kigozi

As previously reported by the International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI), Burundian President Nkurunziza’s decision in late April to run for a third term triggered protests and violence in Bujumbura and set the stage for an attempted coup (see Suicidal for the nation’: An interview with a Burundian politician in hiding; Burundi: No business as usual; and The Burundi crisis and the risk of regionalisation).

By the third week of May 2015, at least twenty people had been killed in a month of unrest, more than 112,000 Burundians had fled to Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzania, and scores of Burundian refugees had died of cholera in Tanzania. In addition, as of 2 June, 7,659 Burundian refugees had arrived at Uganda’s Nakivale refugee settlement as a result of the current crisis in their country.

While some have expressed surprise over recent events, any keen observer of political developments in Burundi will have seen this crisis coming for years. No sooner had Nkurunziza begun his second presidential term in 2010 than a serious debate started over the legality or illegality of his possible future bid for a third term. His second term was characterised by the continued activities of the deadly armed youth wing militia of the ruling CNDD-FDD, the imbonerakure; increasing human rights abuses and shrinking political space. All the signs of an impending crisis were present, and the situation was becoming increasingly dangerous.

In response, human rights groups and academics have been trying for years to raise the alarm. For instance, in 2012, following a large-scale operation by UNHCR and the governments of Tanzania and Burundi to “voluntarily repatriate” 38,050 former Burundian refugees from Mtabila refugee settlement in Tanzania to Burundi, approximately 2,000 of these repatriated Burundians fled again to Nakivale refugee settlement in Uganda, IRRI published a briefing note  on Burundian refugees in Uganda as part of its broader research on conflict and displacement in Burundi, documenting  not only their dire humanitarian situation, but also the reasons they fled from Burundi. Most cited threats and violence from the imbonerakure: many said that they had accused them of being anti-government because of their late return to Burundi from exile. There were allegations of torture, confiscation of land and other property, death threats and murder at the hands of this dreaded group.

IRRI’s report tried to raise the alarm about what was taking place within Burundi, but it appears the warning fell on deaf ears – or certainly, no action was taken. Once again, the claims of asylum seekers were simply not taken seriously even by those who are mandated to protect.  For instance, when IRRI raised the case of this group with officials in Uganda, a senior UNHCR officer responded, “…. Burundi is not at war. The situation has improved significantly and contrary to what [your report] implies, there is a substantial interest on voluntary repatriation among the Burundian refugees in Uganda… refugees always know the situation of their country of origin better and quicker than the rest of us… we have a UNHCR Office in Burundi and they share updates about developments in areas of return.”[1]

While Burundi might not have been at war at that time, the testimonies of these refugees were clear warning signs of possible violence or civil conflict. The stories of refugees can often be an indicator for what is taking place within the country from which they have fled. If early warning mechanisms are to be given a chance, such claims must be taken seriously by national and international authorities; and officials should take the time to establish the real reasons for the refugees’ flight and use appropriate channels to redress these situations early.

It is well established that conflict early warning (just like for natural disasters) is key in preventing civil conflict or in reducing its impact. Awareness raising and communicating important risk information are all major elements of early warning. Yet in labelling IRRI’s report “highly exaggerated”,[2] the same UNHCR official undermined such warnings and contributed to them going unheeded. Certainly for Burundi, there was no adequate response and minimal action was taken at both regional and international levels.


Instead, the imbonerakure continued to terrorise Burundians, and they are currently reported to be working with elements of the Service national des renseignements (the national intelligence service) in carrying out interrogations and arbitrary arrests. It is likely that most of the Burundian refugees that IRRI interviewed in Nakivale in August 2012 are still there. With presidential elections scheduled for the end of June and the situation remaining volatile, thousands more have arrived in Nakivale and other camps or settlements in other countries of the Great Lakes Region. How many more will have to flee before effective action is taken?

Programmes: Resolving Displacement, Responsibility to Protect R2P
Regions: Great Lakes Region, Burundi
Type: IRRI Blog