Burundi: No one will say the ‘G’ word out aloud…

Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame has accused Burundi’s leaders of carrying out “massacres” in a speech on the crisis in the neighbouring country. “People die every day, corpses litter the streets How can the leaders allow their population to be massacred from morning to night?” Kagame asked last week.

But even Kagame was not willing to use the “G” word, although the US and human-rights organisations have warned of the “risk” of genocide.

Otherwise, while many now widely accept that thousands of people will be slaughtered in Burundi before the crisis sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s third term grab is over, it is also widely felt that it will not rise to the level of a genocide. A massacre, well, yes.

There are three arguments against a genocide scenario:

The first, and weakest, is that the world will not stand by and allow it. Well, it just did exactly that with South Sudan, which has witnessed the most shocking and primordial forms of ethnic violence since civil war broke out in December 2013.

The second is that, while Burundi has the same ethnic mix as Rwanda, with Tutsi being nearly 20 per cent of the population and the Hutu 80 per cent, the Tutsi form over 50 per cent of the Burundian army.

The Arusha Agreement that ended the civil war in Burundi some 10 years ago, came up with that, to get the Tutsi elite that was giving up 60 per cent of positions to Hutus, to be secure enough to accept the deal.

Third, analysts argue that the opposition to Nkurunziza is broadbased, with both Hutus and Tutsis lined up against him in equal measure. And that is correct.

On the other hand, we have short memories. And going back to the Rwanda genocide of 1994, shows why the second and third reasons cited above could also provide an argument for why Nkurunziza and the hardliners around him will be tempted to take a route that could end up in genocide.

Precisely because the Tutsi are a majority in the army, and it wields so much influence, breaking their hold is what the Hutu hardliners need to take total power. For that to happen, the Hutu opposition to Nkurunziza must be removed. In Rwanda in 1994, many Hutu were killed for the same reason.

But what really swept the rug from under the Hutu moderates and progressives’ feet was the genocide. It broke trust between the Tutsi and Hutu, and implicated the rest of the Hutu in the genocide, forcing many to abandon the middle ground and rally in fear of collective punishment in the event of victory by the RPF.

In the end, the Rwanda killers failed in their goal of a making a post-genocide settlement impossible.

But they did demonstrate that you could instrumentalise mass murder.

Similarly in Burundi now, the two things stopping the extremists from taking absolute control — a Hutu opposition, and a Tutsi-dominated army — can most easily be got rid of through the word that many are too mortified to utter. They will probably fail, but they won’t know that until they try.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail and Guardian Africa (mgafrica.com). Twitter@cobbo3