Assassinations of senior officers and secret defections are crippling Burundi’s army, one year into a crisis that has created hundreds of thousands of refugees and led to the revival of hate speech previously used to fuel genocidal massacres.
The military was once a symbol and defender of the country’s reconciliation, with quotas for majority Hutus and minority Tutsis that prevented it becoming the fiefdom of either group. But it is now being ripped apart by fear, suspicion and the destruction of its top ranks.
“The army is itself a battlefield between the government and opposition,” said Thierry Vircoulon, a senior consultant for the International Crisis Group. “They can perhaps carry on with targeted killings for quite some time, but this is destroying the army. There are quite a lot of defections that are unreported.”
More than a quarter of a million people have fled the central African nation, which neighbours Rwanda and shares with that country a history of ethnic bloodshed, since president Pierre Nkurunziza announced last April that he would defy the constitution and run for a third term.
Once hailed as a model for peace-building, Burundi has been sliding towards full-blown civil war, with thousands killed, tortured, abducted or jailed.
The widely feared Imbonerakure militia, officially the youth wing of the ruling party, has been blamed for much of the abuse. Activists warn that, with weakened security forces, the group’s thugs will have a freer hand.
“They are trying to dismantle the army, so it will be very difficult to secure the people, secure the country,” warned Justine Nkurunziza, a civil society activist.
The most recent attack was on Monday, when a brigadier general believed to be close to the president was killed along with his wife and bodyguard as he dropped a child off at school; the daughter also later died of her injuries.
Not only pro-government officers have been targeted; up to half a dozen senior officers from both sides have been killed in the past month.
The army’s troubles come at a time when senior members of the government are increasingly reverting to ethnically charged propaganda, apparently trying to bolster its position by rekindling old animosities between Hutu and Tutsi.
“It’s the discourse of the past,” said Vircoulon. “It’s serious, because it shows a mindset, that the past is coming back and of course the radicalisation can only grow over time.”
Burundi has endured years of civil war and several genocidal massacres since claiming independence in 1962. Its power-sharing constitution, agreed as part of the peace deal that first brought Nkurunziza to power, was making real progress towards healing those old wounds, and banishing the spectre of another genocide.
But his decision to run for a third term was followed by a failed coup attempt and, as the rebellion across the country grew, the president and his inner circle appear to have calculated that appealing to ethnic fears and allegiances could be key to retaining power.
“As they have no real arguments, they have started with another tactic, to show that he is a leader who draws power from the Hutus and protects the Hutus,” said Geneviève Kanyange, a former member of the ruling party who opposed Nkurunziza’s third term and fled into exile.
“There is resistance to these divisive ideas among both the Hutu and the Tutsi in the population. But in the long term, if things continue this way, I don’t know. Maybe you will have a situation where extremists attack each other.”
The escalation of violence and vicious propaganda comes at a time of increasing international focus on Burundi. The prosecutor of the international criminal court this week opened a preliminary investigation of atrocities in the country over the past year, and the UN is weighing up dispatching a new police mission.
Amnesty International earlier this year said satellite pictures from Burundi backed accounts of mass graves, and Human Rights Watch warned of “increased brutality … [and] new levels of lawlessness”.
The crisis is so serious that the African Union earlier this year considered sending in peacekeeping troops without government consent. The plan was ultimately dropped, but the EU has halted aid payments and European governments have joined the US in imposing sanctions on senior leaders.
Activists say the government has changed tack in a bid to mute criticism from abroad, but has not abandoned the use of brutal force.
“They are changing the modus operandi all the time. They are no longer leaving bodies in the street, or digging mass graves. Now they have two, three – maximum five bodies buried at once,” said Vital Nshimirimana, a leading civil society activist. “They are easier to dig, and you can have [graves] in many places at once, so it is not as obvious.”