This is a guest post by Claire Wilmot, an intern for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Program. She is a master of global affairs candidate at the University of Toronto.
Over the weekend, 170 opposition fighters were captured and thirty-one killed by Burundian armed forces in the Chibitoke region (near the borders of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo). This is the latest in a series of violent incidents following President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid to run for a third term in office in violation of Burundi’s constitution. Last week Nkurunziza’s party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), announced victory in the parliamentary elections, despite an opposition boycott and the UN proclamation that the vote was not free, fair, or credible. Once a post-conflict success story, Burundi now threatens to relapse into violence, raising questions about what went wrong in the peacebuilding process.
Burundi emerged from a twelve-year civil war in 2006 and was placed on the agenda of the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC), a UN advisory body that supports strategies for countries emerging from conflict. Burundi has a similar Hutu-Tutsi ethnic makeup as its neighbor, Rwanda, (85 percent and 14 percent) and experienced episodic ethnic cleansing during the civil war.
The Arusha Accords ending the conflict detailed a power sharing constitutional arrangement designed to avoid the kind of “zero-sum” politics that lead to violence in highly divided societies. One crucial aspect of Burundi’s peace efforts seems to have worked: political and security entities are no longer split along clear ethnic lines. Observers argue the most salient divide is now between those who support the incumbent party, and everyone else. Whether this modest success is enough to prevent the re-emergence of conflict remains to be seen—the situation is extremely tense as the election draws closer.
Peacebuilding gains began to unravel after the 2010 election boycott, and the PBC subsequently failed to reopen dialogue among opposing groups. However, as the chair of the Burundi configuration of the PBC recently emphasized, the failure to meaningfully engage youth (aged 15-25), particularly ex-combatants, in peacebuilding efforts also had a detrimental impact on peace. Others have emphasized that the failure to create opportunities for youth outside of conflict may have been a driving factor in the country’s recent violence. The Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the CNDD-FDD, has attacked protestors and engaged in campaigns of violence and intimidation in the north. Leaked UN documents revealed that the group has received arms and training from the ruling party.
The ease and speed with which youth have taken up arms is testament to the incomplete nature of the demobilization and reintegration process after the war. Among the ranks of the Imbonerakure are former combatants whose grievances are easily manipulated by political elites that offer them security, a cause, and material rewards. Little progress has been made in Burundi in terms of socioeconomic development; over 80 percent of Burundians still live below the poverty line. The situation is particularly dire for youth, who experience unemployment at a rate three times higher than their older counterparts in parts of the country. Frustrated with the lack of progress, many of these young people are now armed and ready to participate in violence if the political situation deteriorates.
The role of youth as agents of positive change or drivers of conflict in fragile societies has been widely documented. It is clear that creating opportunities for youth to participate in the reconstruction of their countries, combined with a development strategy to improve their wellbeing, is vital to maintaining peacebuilding gains.