Editorial Board

Burundi's Crisis Is Political, Not Ethnic

Africa's leaders must stop treating their constitutions like an Etch-a-Sketch.

Third time is not a charm.

Photographer: Landry Nshimiye/AFP/Getty Images

What's happening now in Burundi is evoking anxious comparisons to what happened 21 years ago in Rwanda, where some 800,000 Tutsis and sympathizers were killed in 100 days in a Hutu-led genocide. But the roots of the current violence are more political than ethnic, and so there can be hope that the crisis -- though still deeply disturbing -- is more tractable.

Burundi's unrest stems from the unwise decision in April by President Pierre Nkurunziza to secure a third term over the objections of his opponents, both Hutu and Tutsi, who argued that doing so violated Burundi's post-civil war constitution.

On Thursday, the United Nations Security Council condemned the violence -- which included the put-down of a coup in May -- that has killed at least 240 and caused more than 180,000 Burundians to flee to neighboring countries. Although the resolution called for stepped-up mediation and contingency planning by the UN and Burundi's neighbors, it stopped short of any punitive action.

Moreover, the response by Burundi's neighbors to Nkurunziza's power play has been disjointed and conflicted. The African Union doesn't want to jeopardize Burundi's contribution of 5,000 troops to its peacekeeping force in Somalia, for instance. Meanwhile, leaders such as Rwandan President Paul Kagame and the Democratic Republic of Congo’s Joseph Kabila are contemplating constitutional changes to enable them to run again for office.

African voters are increasingly angry about the tendency of their leaders to extend their hold on power by treating their constitutions like an Etch-a-Sketch. Without effective democratic institutions, however, they have mostly struggled to prevent that from happening. Decisions by the political opposition to boycott flawed elections, as Burundi's opposition did in 2010, have merely allowed rulers to consolidate their power. Outside exhortations from aid donors have had limited effect -- especially as China, the continent's largest trading partner, has stepped in with no-strings-attached offers of aid and investment.

So what can be done to prevent the violence from turning into a full-blown civil war?

Certainly Burundi's African neighbors need to do more, and the rest of the world needs to make clear to them the costs of inaction. The U.S. and European Union could buttress the Security Council's call for contingency planning with offers of more robust support for regional peacekeeping forces. Even with a stymied Security Council, outside players still have leverage. Travel bans and asset freezes keyed not just to human-rights violators but also to those implicated in Burundi's deep-seated corruption would send a strong signal. And surely China is not immune to the controversy and opprobrium that come from supporting a leader widely seen as illegitimate.

What has made Burundi a powder keg is not so much its troubled history or restive young population. It's the willingness of one man to attach and light the fuse, and the unwillingness of others to stop him.