Skip to main content

A protester sets up a barricade during a protest against Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza and his bid for a third term in Bujumbura, Burundi, May 26, 2015. REUTERS/Goran TomasevicGORAN TOMASEVIC/Reuters

Two decades ago, the world stood by as Rwanda descended into genocide. Two decades later, observers are worried that the building blocks are being laid for a sequel – next door in neighbouring Burundi.

Here's the backstory. The African Union has worked to establish democratic, constitutional norms among its member states, with some success. One result is that quite a few African countries have term limits for its presidents. Such limits for political office-holders are not always a good thing, but in a continent where rulers are apt to hold on indefinitely, it can be a good idea.

Some African countries have built into their constitutions a clause like the 22nd amendment of the U.S. Constitution – only two four-year presidential terms per person.

But now a wave is forming of presidents who want more than eight years. One of them is President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi. In April, he asserted that he could run for a third term, on the ground that he had been elected not directly by the people, but by the parliament.

This claim has become bitterly contentious. Human Rights Watch and other NGOs in Burundi are extremely worried by the increasingly virulent rhetoric in this controversy, reminiscent of the overheated language that was heard in the run-up to Rwanda's 1994 genocide – particularly with one code word that incited massacres then. Literally, it just means "work" or "get to work," but in an intense, heightened, worked-up context, it can mean "Get to work to slaughter the enemy."

The NGOs have reports of shootings and killings of protesters and opposition party supporters by soldiers and police. Burundi has essentially the same ethnic groups as Rwanda, Hutus and Tutsis. The current crisis is not rooted in tribal conflict, but what started as political-party strife has the potential to suddenly flip into genocide. Mr. Nkurunziza must step back and restrain his armed supporters, before the conflict becomes a matter of mass murder.