Skip to main content

“How is the United States to avoid taking matters into its own hands and becoming the world’s policeman if multinational institutions fail to do the job?”



  by J. R. Bullington


L i k e  R w a n d a , described and analyzed by Frank Crigler in the previous issue of American Diplomacy, Burundi is an Eden become Hades, a hauntingly beautiful land of mountains and lakes and near-perfect climate, where neighbors slaughter neighbors with machetes and the violent logic of fear and revenge is the guiding principle of daily life.
In fact, Burundi is Rwanda’s near-twin in terms of:

  • Geography — a Maryland-sized, mountainous, landlocked country in Africa’s Great Rift Valley, nestled between Tanzania and Zaire;
  • Population — six or seven million (all statistics in both countries are today little more than informed guesses), about 85 percent Hutu and the rest mostly Tutsi, crowded into some of Africa’s most overpopulated countryside;
  • Economy — desperately poor and declining, based on subsistence farming, with coffee the principal export, and a primitive physical infrastructure;
  • History — a pre-colonial Tutsi-ruled kingdom more or less within present boundaries, colonized first by Germany at the end of the nineteenth century, and then Belgium following World War I, and independent since 1962.
The Power of Example

It is the post-colonial history of the two countries that has been at the same time fundamentally different and horribly similar.

In Rwanda, the majority Hutus — the traditionally lower caste farming people — seized power and began killing and persecuting Tutsis, many of whom became refugees in Burundi and other neighboring countries.
In Burundi, the minority Tutsis — upper caste pastoral people through whom the Belgians had ruled — maintained their dominance through control of the army and violently suppressed all Hutu attempts to achieve democracy or even a meaningful share of power. This suppression included a 1972 campaign of genocide, in response to a Hutu uprising, in which virtually every Burundi Hutu with more than an elementary education was killed or forced into exile. Reprisals for Hutu attacks in 1993 left 100,000 dead in a grim prelude to the 1994 slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda.
Indeed, this similarity of background coupled with opposing power structures is fundamental to comprehending the tragedy of both countries. Through thirty-five years of independence, Burundi Tutsis could point to Rwanda and say, “See, that’s what will happened to us if the Hutus ever get power.” With equal force, Rwandan Hutus could point to Burundi and say, “See, that’s what the Tutsis will do to us if they ever regain power here.”

If one were a member of either ruling group, it would be very difficult to find this logic, along with the bloody evidence supporting it, less than compelling. Especially after the massive 1994 Rwanda genocide, it is fatuous to expect political compromise and reconciliation in anything less than generational terms.

Contemporary Burundi

Burundi is still ruled by the Tutsi army. Its current leader, Pierre Buyoya, is a moderate Tutsi whom I knew as a promising young major when I was ambassador to Burundi in 1983 – 1986. (I sent him to the United States for a month on a USIA leader grant.) In 1987, he mounted a successful coup which overthrew an especially repressive and paranoid Tutsi regime headed by Colonel-turned-President Jean-Batiste Bagaza; and to the surprise of most observers Buyoya implemented Western-backed economic and political reforms including, in 1992, a new constitution. The subsequent elections were genuine and democratic and therefore, naturally, won by the Hutus. This was probably the country’s last chance for democratic reconciliation. However, the Tutsis retained control of the army, hard-liners in both camps prevailed, and the result was assassination of the new Hutu president, government paralysis, chaos, and gradual descent into civil war. The situation was exacerbated by the bloody 1994 chaos in Rwanda and its aftermath.

Buyoya returned to power in another military coup in July 1996 and talked again of reconciliation, but by this time neither side was willing to compromise. Moreover, neighboring countries shunned the new military regime and imposed an economic blockade, which has further exacerbated the problems of daily life for ordinary people without noticeable effect on the army or Tutsi determination to retain political control.

So, the civil war grinds on, with Hutu raids followed by Tutsi reprisals, followed by more raids and more reprisals, leaving a few dozen or a few hundred people — mostly civilians — dead or wounded nearly every week. The capital, Bujumbura, has been ethnically cleansed of Hutus; squalid refugee camps dot the countryside; atrocities by both sides are commonplace; and fear is pervasive. I can think of no more apt description of than that which Thomas Hobbes famously applied to much of the Europe of his day, places

wherein men live without other security than what their own strength and their own invention shall furnish them . . . . No arts; no letters; no society; and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death; and the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.

Today, with the recent rebel success in Zaire, Tutsis and their ethnic cousins and allies hold effective power in Rwanda, Uganda, and Zaire, as well as in Burundi. Will this bring peace to the region? Perhaps, but at best it will be a peace based on minority rule and oppression. More likely, the Hutus will continue their struggle, and violent instability will remain endemic in the region.

U.S. Response?

What should be the U. S. response to this situation? The magnitude of the killings, the wretchedness of the refugee camps, the images of starving children, and the ever-present danger of yet another genocidal spasm make the region impossible to ignore. But before we send U. S. forces to engage in rescue and peacekeeping mission, as we came so close to doing in late 1996 (until most of the Rwandan refugees in Zaire began returning to Rwanda on their own) we should engrave at the top of every options paper that addresses this possibility:

The United States has no national interests in Central Africa!

In fact, it has no vital interest anywhere in sub-Saharan Africa or in the continent as a whole. Whatever strategic significance Africa may once have held surely vanished with the end of the Cold War. Economically, moreover, the region is marginal, with a total GDP only slightly greater than that of Belgium and a meager two percent of total world trade, down from four percent in the 1960s. Of this small market, the U. S. share is only seven percent. And to put the economy of little Burundi in perspective, the country’s largest industry by far is the Dutch-owned brewery, which produces forty percent of the government’s tax revenue.

No matter how high our humanitarian concern may mount, our interests in this part of the world, and especially in remote central Africa, are marginal at most, and surely not sufficient to sustain costly, long-term commitments. Moreover, short of imposing colonial-style rule — something that no one wants — there is little we can do to bring peace and security and development to Burundi and Rwanda. We cannot heal their hatreds, cleanse their corruption, legitimate their leaders. These people are responsible for their own destinies, and they should remain so.

As hard as this is for Americans to accept, there simply are no good solutions to most of these countries’ fundamental problems, at least none the United States and other outsiders can impose.

Just Say No!

Frank Crigler’s article on Rwanda poses the question, “How is the United States to avoid taking matters into its own hands and becoming the world’s policeman if multilateral institutions fail to do their job?”

My response, at least for Burundi, Rwanda, and the other failed and failing states of Africa, is “Just say no!” We have no national interest to be served by taking such actions. There are more compelling demands elsewhere for our limited international affairs resources, and our intervention would be much more likely to fail than to succeed.

This does not mean that we should refuse humanitarian relief or fail to facilitate negotiations if our help is wanted. We should also provide limited assistance (but not U.S. forces) to UN and other multilateral peacekeeping efforts. However, we should concentrate our attention and our resources not on Africa’s many failures such as Burundi and Rwanda, but on those few countries that have achieved a measure of political stability and decent government and that have adopted sound economic policies — countries where our humanitarian impulses can be sustained by reasonable prospects for success in economic and political development. These countries would include South Africa and a select number of others such as Botswana, Eritrea, Ghana, and Mali.

Such a policy of select engagement in Africa would be consistent with our national interests and within our current means, and it should command sufficient domestic political support to be sustainable for the long term. Such a policy is our best option in the face of difficult choices as we look to the future of our relationship with Africa.

Comments are closed.