Burundi: The Problem with “Give War a Chance”

Burundi: The Problem with “Give War a Chance”

As residents of the region, surely, the recent crisis in Burundi has exposed us—not just as citizens of countries in the East African Community, but also as academics and claimed public intellectuals—to diverse perspectives about the ramifications of and the possible pathways towards preventing a relapse into a full-blown war. It also appears that the situation, marked by a lack of consensus on the part of several of the region’s leaders who have not shown interest in intervening in a constructive manner, is replicated within the intelligentsia. Bereft of new and creative thinking, many of us have resorted to sloganeering, outright ahistoricism, and making sweeping—and sometimes outlandish—generalizations. Because the current Burundi crisis partly springs from president Pierre Nkurunziza’s life-presidential project, it has been problematic for some regional leaders to take a definitive stand for or against it.

There are some cynics that observe that Nkurunzika’s mistake lies in not learning from the leaders of neighboring states: Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and Paul Kagame of Rwanda, who appear to have been able to learn the art of prolonged stay in power without generating any large-scale instability in their countries. It would appear, however, that East Africa will have to come to terms with reaching consensus on forms of governance and political transitions that are less destabilizing and more likely to promote stable democratic governance.

After President Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for a third term as president in April 2015, Burundi witnessed the outbreak of initially peaceful demonstrations by the opposition and some civil society groups in different parts of the capital, which later degenerated into violence. In late 2015, the violence intensified in leading to severe injuries and some deaths, causing fear of potential ethnic cleansing campaigns and the unraveling of the fragile peace reached under the Arusha Peace Accord. The holding of “third term” elections in spite of protests, and the escalation of violence between government security forces and protesters, fueled widespread fears regionally and internationally. This led to the proposal by the African Union (AU), based on several fact-finding visits, of sending a peacekeeping mission into the country. As the pros and cons of AU intervention are being debated (and opposed by Nkurunziza’s government that dismisses the opposition as “terrorists”) some voices have emerged suggesting Burundi should be left to itself.1

Recent editorials by Fredrick Golooba-Mutebi in the East African and Andrew Mwenda in the Independent both borrowed heavily from Edward Luttwak’s 1999 essay, “Give War a Chance,” which criticized peacekeeping missions and interventions into conflicts by nongovernmental organizations and suggested their removal.2 Luttwak’s eloquent piece saw violent conflict as resulting from the absence of firm authority, in the sense that once one of the warring factions stamped its authority on a disputed area, peace would reign. In other words, long-lasting peace and stability is a product of victory and firm authority—either violent conflict should give us a winner, or the warring factions must exhaust themselves to allow for concessions preparatory to peacemaking. Luttwak suggested that, in the absence of a hegemonic power (Russia or the United States) to decisively intervene, “minor” wars should be allowed to run their full course.

That fifteen years down the road this argument is being proposed as a way of “doing Burundi a favor” is in my view a bit disturbing. The rather intractable crisis in Somalia should have taught us that allowing conflict to fester for a long period can both be debilitating to a country as well as its neighbors and also very costly in the long run. East African countries are connected to each other in many ways. Displacement and refugee crises, piracy, terrorism, arms proliferation, and population flows across national boundaries all pose serious development and security challenges with regional ramifications.

The risk of an uncritical acceptance of “allowing war to run its natural course” is the possibility that we could end up with the incineration of whole populations through genocide, especially in places where conflicts continue to be defined along religious, tribal, or ethnic lines—and examples abound. Also, the assumption that war will run its natural course and burn out, produce a victor, or leave the fighting factions exhausted is as ahistorical as to be fictional. In the history of the modern nation state, no conflict has ever occurred without foreign intervention. In fact, in modern conflicts, being weak and strong are not permanent conditions. They are tenuous. This is especially so because external hands, on behalf of different interests, are always extending "help" in different forms, with potential to disrupt the possession of power. The idea that all conditions for past, present, and future conflict are removed once war is truly ended—that is, with a victor or exhaustion in the picture—does not make sense. Peace is never a permanent condition. It is a process of continued negotiation and mediation, with new forces and factors coming into the equation, involving human beings growing, changing, and responding to different questions in different moments of their history.

Against such a background, it can be argued that swallowing Luttwak’s thinking hook, line, and sinker may amount to abdicating responsibility to nipping the Burundi crisis in the bud. As what today appears as Burundi’s problem alone, if unaddressed, may morph into a bigger crisis of regional proportions.

Surely, Burundi has exposed us in East Africa the same way Somalia continues to. However, we need innovative thinking on how to address our crises and conflicts that reflect our histories, experiences, and struggles. We cannot ignore the context in which these scenarios are bred. It is important not to subscribe to a mindset based on flawed arguments, but rather embrace a more positive turn towards “no more war, give peace a chance.”

  1. Fredrick Golooba-Mutebi, “Let Burundians Fight It Out, Says Mwenda; He May Have a Point,” East African, December 19, 2015, http://www.theeastafrican.co.ke/OpEd/comment/Let-Burundians-fight-it-out--says-Mwenda--he-may-have-a-point-/-/434750/3003140/-/1r0qmmz/-/index.html, accessed January 31, 2016; Andrew Mwenda, “The Solution for Burundi,” Independent, December 22, 2015, http://independent.co.ug/andrewmwenda/?p=865, accessed February 1, 2016.
  2. Edward Luttwak, “Give War a Chance,” Foreign Affairs, July/August 1999, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/1999-07-01/give-war-chance, accessed January 31, 2016.
About the Author

Yusuf K. Serunkuma is a PhD graduate fellow at Makerere Institute of Social Research (MISR), Makerere University, Uganda. Yusuf does fieldwork in Somaliland—an autonomous region of Somalia—and utilizes popular culture and literature to understand the ways in which Somaliland is building a national consciousness as different from Somalia. Yusuf is an SSRC 2014–2015 Next Generation Social Sciences in Africa proposal development fellow. Before joining MISR, Yusuf was editor with Fountain Publishers, and also worked at The Independent magazine as subeditor.

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