The story is painfully familiar: African nation on the verge of collapse following internecine violence needs the help of the international community to avoid genocide. Within the past five years, this has been the story in Somalia, Rwanda, Liberia and several lesser-known African countries caught in ethnic strife, conflict and civil war.
Now the bell tolls for Burundi, where the country's military seized power last week and installed a Tutsi president, Pierre Buyoya, the country's Tutsi leader. Former Burundian President Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, a Hutu, earlier fled to the American ambassador's residence after being stoned by Tutsis attending a mass funeral for 300 Tutsi massacre victims.
Will the world have any more tears left for the senseless African bloodshed that seems destined to follow in Burundi?
Even before the coup, the numbers killed were sobering. The former U.S. ambassador to Burundi likened the devastation to the casualties produced by an Oklahoma City-sized bombing every hour of the day, if adjusted proportionately for the difference in population. More than 150,000 have died in interethnic violence in the three years since Burundi's first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, was elected in June 1993. His assassination, in an abortive coup attempt by the minority-Tutsi army in October 1993, sparked a retaliatory spiral of violence, resulting in more than 100,000 deaths and an exodus of 600,000 refugees from Burundi to neighboring Tanzania, Zaire and Rwanda.
Since then, ethnic tension between majority Hutus and minority Tutsis, who control the army, business and government, has intensified. The coalition government overthrown last week was the successor to a 1994 U.N.-sponsored arrangement, in which 55% of available government posts went to Hutus, while the Tutsis collected 45%. Signs that Burundi's fragile peace was unraveling first appeared last Easter, when Tutsi extremists systematically embarked upon ethnic cleansing near Burundi's second largest city, Gitega. Last Saturday's massacre of 300 Tutsi (mostly women and children) by Hutu rebels at a refugee camp in Bugandana was a wake-up call to the international community that, absent quick and concerted intervention, Burundi was poised for more bloodshed.
For a while, it appeared that Burundi might escape the genocidal dementia that befell its twin state, Rwanda. In Rwanda, the international community, and particularly the West, experienced a belated humanitarian epiphany, induced by criticism from African states willing, but unable, to save Rwanda from tragedy. With Burundi heading toward a similar fate, conflict-prevention experts had outlined a rescue plan: regional participation in preventive diplomacy; multilateral monitoring of developments in the country; a responsible media keeping abreast of events; a central role for the United Nations, and the allocation of money for possible intervention. Nicholas Hinton, president of the London-based Capital International Crisis Group, calls for the creation of an African force to prevent further violence, with the West providing logistical and financial support.
Unlike in Rwanda, the international community closely monitored Burundi. In March, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros Ghali warned of the country's deteriorating state and requested the United States, France, Britain, Russia and China to support a rapid-deployment peacekeeping force. Washington agreed to provide airlift, communications and logistical support, but no troops.
While African nations may have the will, they probably lack the wherewithal to intervene in Burundi, unless financial support is provided. Former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere has pledged to assemble an East African peacekeeping force from Chad, Malawi, Zambia, Ethiopia, Uganda and Tanzania to intervene. The Organization of African Unity (OAU) has strongly endorsed his initiative. Nyerere also had successfully mediated an agreement between the Tutsi government and Hutu rebels, which allowed for Ethiopian, Ugandan and Tanzanian troops to provide security assistance to the country. Last week's coup, unfortunately, may dash all this progress.
Burundi thus presents some difficult challenges not only for the West, but for Africa as well. As for the West, the specter of renewed genocide in the heart of Africa could re-ignite the unresolved debate on the West's responsibility, and particularly that of the United States, to stop crimes against humanity. Second, the potential spoliation of a tiny African country that is neither strategically nor commercially significant to U.S. interests may test the wisdom of America's view of itself in the post-Cold War world, which includes a strong isolationist strain in Congress. Third, Burundi's colonial heritage raises anew the question of Western culpability for the instability that marks so many developing countries and whether such a history can inspire the West to intervene, when necessary, in a troubled country.
Perhaps most poignantly, Burundi, not unlike Liberia, indicated a new maturity among African states in attempting to address, cooperatively and regionally, the continent's crises. With appropriate support from the West, African countries whose national interests are imperiled by regional strife, refugees and economic underdevelopment will rise to leadership. It is encouraging to believe that African nations, though their hearts may be deeper than their pockets, are on the threshold of developing something tantamount to an African Monroe Doctrine.
In the interim, however, one must wonder whether there will be any tears left for Burundi's looming bloodshed.*