Governance and politics

Lessons learned from the international community’s response to the Burundian crisis

Search for Common Ground

The international community has undertaken several efforts to manage the conflict in Burundi. Gabrielle Solanet from Search for Common Ground presents a number of lessons learned and three actions for the international community to pursue, including a mix of short term responses and longer term sustainable planning. These topics were discussed at the interactive brainstorm ‘Innovative thinking on strategic approaches to conflict management’, which was organized by the Knowledge Platform Security & Rule of Law in The Hague on 7 October.


The announcement of Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza’s candidacy for a controversial third term in office in April 2015 sparked mass protests and violence in the capital Bujumbura and across the country. While Nkurunziza’s subsequent re-election this summer was surrounded by a relative calm, targeted killings and subjective imprisonment of political and civil society leaders and civilians have continued and even escalated. The international community that provides half of Burundi’s annual budget has taken several steps in mitigating the violence and supporting a political solution for the crisis. What are the lessons that have been learned?

Support to the political dialogue should remain a priority

The international community has provided space for dialogue and negotiations between the Burundian government and political opposition parties, first through UN-led mediation efforts, then through mediation efforts led by the African Union (AU), and by the East African Community (EAC). While they have so far failed in finding a peaceful solution for the crisis, political dialogue should remain a priority for the international community. Specifically, international donors and regional partners of Burundi should use all their diplomatic and financial leverage to push for the government’s ‘Inter-Burundian Dialogue’ initiative to be fully inclusive and involve consultations with the population across dividing lines.

Political declarations and sanctions may not have the intended effect

The international community issued strong statements and declarations prior to the elections but faced a lacking response from the Burundian government. Several of Burundi’s major donors, including Belgium, the Netherlands, and the United States, have started suspending their bilateral aid. At the end of last month, the EU requested the opening of consultations with the government of Burundi around the possible invoking of Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement, which provides grounds for the suspension of the EU’s bilateral aid to Burundi. A suspension of aid, even partially, is going to affect the Burundian economy and will have a direct impact on the population. Also if the economy deteriorates, people may be more inclined to engage in violence acts.

Yet with these sanctions, the international community is showing its effectiveness in moving from speech to action. The aid could also be redirected to continue its support of the Burundian people through other channels, to support peace-building, social cohesion and economic recovery programs. In spite of these measures, it is important that the international community continues to coordinate with all regional and international stakeholders, to look at possible scenarios and at different ways to respond quickly and effectively as the situation evolves.

Support the Burundian population through strong civil society

Civil society is very strong in Burundi. Certain civil groups played an important role in mobilizing the protests against the President’s third mandate. Given their strength and presence across the country, civil society organizations do constitute good structures in conveying international support to the Burundian population. International support to youth programming and to a timely and professional coverage of the Burundian elections through the 'Media Synergy’ of radio stations helped to limit the spread of rumors and mitigated the violence during the polling.

Focus on a mix of short and longer term actions

In the months to come, international donors will need to fund concrete ideas and solutions that can alleviate the economic crisis, promote reconciliation and strengthen communities’ resilience to violence on both sides. This will require a mix of short term responses and longer term sustainable planning with a focus on the following three actions:

  • Ensuring that aid is effectively responding to people’s economic grievances;
  • Supporting the re-opening of independent media to increase people’s access to reliable information and avoid the spread of rumors, and a stronger collaboration between media outlets across the region so they can support each other to cope with media shutdowns;
  • Supporting initiatives that strengthen mutual understanding and social cohesion at the community level by humanizing the ‘other’, as Ronny Edry, another speaker at the interactive brainstorm in The Hague, also argued. Mutual understanding and social cohesion can also be increased through activities that connect youth across dividing lines, by rebuilding trust between communities and the police forces, and by equipping school teachers with the skills to handle how the conflict affects children and ensuring that children can use problem-solving and dialogue skills from a young age.

Join the conversation

This blog post is part of an online continuation of the conversation started at the Interactive Brainstorm ‘Innovative thinking on strategic approaches to conflict management’, held on 7 October 2015 in the Hague. The Platform and The Broker are organizing a series of online blog posts on this topic, in order to inform the Platform’s broader network about the discussions that have taken place during the event, and to invite you to join the conversation.

This series of blog posts revolves around innovative ideas on how to improve current conflict response mechanisms, ranging from prevention to reaction to rebuilding.

Photo credit: Comptage des voix / Brice Blondel via Flickr.

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