Tensions have been mounting in the East African country of Burundi since April, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he would run for a third term as president. That triggered a coup that was quickly suppressed and simmering tensions that now look increasingly ready to boil over. As the violence mounts, questions are raised about the type of conflict that is emerging. The answers to those questions have powerful implications for the international response that is required.

While Burundi’s constitution limits the president to two terms, Nkurunziza, who has been in office since 2005, insisted that he could run for a third because he was appointed by parliament in his first term and the two-term limit applies only to popularly-elected officials. That interpretation is disputed and a month later several army generals mounted a coup against the president while he was out of the country attending a meeting. The uprising was quickly put down and Nkurunziza handily won another term in national elections held in July.

In the wake of that victory, Nkurunziza has tried to shut down the opposition. Independent media have been closed, opponent politicians have been killed or forced to flee, and neighborhoods known to be strongholds of forces opposed to the president raided by security forces. That has not stopped the opposition, however. Violence continues to spread.

Most of the attacks are random, but earlier this month there were three attacks on military bases, ostensibly to get weapons. The army said that dozens were killed in the defense of those outposts, but there are reports that many of the victims were pulled from their homes and shot in the street. There are other reports of vigilantes going house to house killing suspected fighters. This is spurring yet more resistance to Nkurunziza’s rule. To date, it is estimated that 600 people have been killed this year as a result of political violence and 150,000 people have been internally displaced.

Little is known about the organization of the opposition — or whether it can be said to be organized. Most observers believe that these are independently operating rebel groups that share only a desire to be rid of the president. There are indications of an emerging chain of command but little sign of a united front.

The immediate concern for neighboring countries is the 220,000 Burundians reckoned to have fled the country since April. The flight of those victims has raised concerns about unrest spreading out from Burundi, with the sheer numbers overwhelming neighboring countries’ social systems. Opposition groups are recruiting from those refugees, which could trigger attacks against the camps they live in. This is prompting fears that the Tutsi-dominated government in Rwanda might intervene against the Hutu-run regime in Burundi and spark a return to the ethnic violence that so disrupted eastern Africa in the past.

The Tutsi are a minority in Burundi — they constitute under 20 percent of the population, while 80 percent of Burundians are Hutu and the remaining 1 percent are Twa — although they ran the government from 1965 to 2001. Sectarian tensions grew during that time and erupted in civil war from 1993 to 2005. Negotiations yielded a government that shared power among the country’s ethnic groups and introduced quotas in key institutions, the army in particular, to prevent it from taking sides if frictions again emerged.

While the military has remained neutral during the recent unrest, other parts of the security forces, such as the police and intelligence services — which were spared ethnic quotas — are widely believed to have been involved in the violence. Thus far, however, violence reflects political activity rather than ethnicity, but there are worries that a turn to ethnically directed fighting is imminent.

What we call the conflict in Burundi is more than just a word choice. If the violence takes on an ethnic character then the likelihood of foreign intervention increases. There is a good chance that members of the same ethnic group will move to protect their kin in other countries. (This would reinforce the argument that this is in fact an ethnic conflict.) Calling this an ethnic conflict will also likely harden positions by imbuing them with more than mere political significance; ethnic positions are more likely to be “locked in.”

At the same time, ethnic clashes evoke the specter of genocide, and that would have profound consequences for Burundi. The pressure for intervention by organizations like the African Union and the United Nations would be much greater at the suggestion of mass killing. Genocide would invoke the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court, transforming the legal equities involved.

While violence is the immediate danger, just as troubling is the threat of instability to a vulnerable population: over 80 percent of Burundian families live below the poverty line, 7 percent of the population is severely food insecure, and 58 percent of people are chronically malnourished. Donor funding, which has accounted for over 50 percent of Burundi’s budget, is being cut as the situation deteriorates. A long-term, simmering crisis could prove every bit as fatal to Burundi as an explosive one.

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