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October 21, 2015

Burundi’s Future in Balance

“Good morning, they found another body today,” our driver greeted us calmly as we began another day in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi. His nonchalance was telling, like he was discussing the weather. Instead he was reflecting an all-too-common reality for many Burundians: targeted killings are increasing and violence is not merely an idle threat, though more out of sight than it was when the eyes of the media were on the small country in Africa’s Great Lakes region just a few short months ago.

This past spring and summer, international media and NGOs braced for potential violence in advance of and during the controversial presidential elections in July. Following an assessment from our team in February, we at Humanity United recognized the potential risk for mass violence and began engaging in the country. Even though the elections are now over, our latest assessment illustrated to us that today the risk of increased violence in Burundi remains critically high, if not even higher than earlier in the year.

Independent media outlets remain closed. Rumors run rampant, threatening to escalate an already dangerous situation. The economy is close to collapse and we’re seeing more and more Burundians become targets: from journalists and activists to people who are just in the wrong place and the wrong time, the persistent political violence is worrisome and further escalation is possible.

Although the political and economic situation in Burundi has deteriorated since the election, there is still an opportunity to turn the situation around if a credible inclusive dialogue is put in place. This process must include all parties, even those in opposition now located outside Burundi, and ensuring the close involvement of religious leaders and civil society.

Sustained international engagement can make a difference in how the situation plays out. Prior to the elections, governments like the US and the EU were engaged and very much aware of the risks that the situation posed. They must maintain this focus, and work tirelessly with others to ensure the right pressures and incentives are applied to maximize the changes of a successful dialogue.

Last week, the African Union made a promising statement pushing for dialogue negotiations to begin in earnest soon. Such urgency and determination is required, as the signals from the ground get worse. Since our return from Burundi at the end of September, there have been reports of the increasing presence of arms—sometimes heavy arms—in Bujumbura.

The next few weeks will be critical for Burundi and its neighbors. Given tensions on the ground, the international community also needs to begin planning what it can do to help protect civilians if dialogue fails. Without a strong response strategy, the potential for a further escalation of violence, or even open conflict is real. We need to do our utmost now to ensure that future days do not begin with an accounting of the dead.

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