Nervous men, frightened women and children walking on dusty paths as they flee to seek refuge in neighboring countries is a sight Burundi Catholic bishops describe as “very disturbing.”
While this has happened frequently throughout the history of the tiny East African country, the recent return of such scenes has brought into focus the destructive force of ethnic politics in this part of the world.
The situation is quickly spiraling out of control in the largely Catholic country, said Bishop Joachim Ntahondereye, the chairman of the episcopal conference in Burundi.
“We insist that inclusive dialogue is prioritized by all for the interest of the nation,” said Ntahondereye, the bishop of Muyinga, in a conference statement in early September. “We must block those who opt for the path of war.”
The present turmoil started in April 2015, when the incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would run for a third term as Burundi’s head of state.
The move met with stiff opposition from the bishops, who described the decision as illegal and a threat to the country’s fragile peace.
The bishops were vindicated when protests ignited in the capital Bujumbura soon after Nkurunziza made his formal announcement. The protesters—some of whom marched carrying crosses—demanded the president abandon the plan to stand for re-election. Security forces descended on the protesters and violently crushed the demonstrations.
Things grew worse with an attempted coup by opposition forces a month later. The government retaliated harshly, and key opposition leaders were forced into exile.
Shrugging off the warning of the Catholic bishops and opposition from the international community, Nkurunziza easily won the June 2015 polls, in which a small number of voters participated and which was held under a climate of uncertainty, fear, and gunfire. In August 2015, he was sworn in for his third five-year term.
This controversial election gave birth to an armed opposition force and violent clashes that have left hundreds of people dead and thousands of others displaced.
Tucked in Africa’s Great Lakes region, Burundi does not attract a lot of international attention. It does not have minerals like the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo or the Central African Republic, also turn by conflict. In many ways, Burundi’s is a forgotten crisis.
Still, when crises ignite there—as has happened many times—the impact is far-reaching, which raises concerns for the Church, as well as for international humanitarian agencies.
“We have been deeply concerned about the developments in Burundi,” said Chrisantus Ndaga, the deputy general secretary of the Association of Member Episcopal Conferences in East Africa, in a recent interview. “Anything that disturbs human life and causes people to lose it has to [be criticized] in the strongest terms possible.”
At the moment, neighboring countries are hosting thousands of Burundian refugees. According to UN statistics, there are more than 240,000 in Tanzania, more than 80,000 in Rwanda, 40,000 in the Democratic Republic of Congo, and 26,000 in Uganda. Some 7,000 are residing in Kenya.
According to the Burundi bishops, refugees are living terrible conditions, where they are without some of the most important basic needs. They stress that the return of the people is critical, so the citizens can rebuild their country together.
The bishops are calling for a national dialogue, in which all groups participate. That view is backed by diplomats from western nations and bodies like the United Nations, the African Union, and the East African Community. The general view is that no meaningful talks have been held and the national dialogue to end the crisis is needed.
Last month, it was announced that inter-Burundian peace talks will be held in October. The talks will be led by former Tanzania President Benjamin Mkapa. The bishops are stressing the importance of all interested parties being given a place at the table in these negotiations.