Put out the fire in Burundi or it will spread

When a neighbour’s house catches fire, you rush to put it out. It does not matter whether you had a quarrel the week before. You put that aside and help extinguish the fire first.

You can return to the quarrel later, if you must, or better still, resolve it.

Even if he has started the fire himself, and all his family is inside, you rush to help. It might be alright for one to wish to die. But it is certainly not right to force this death wish on others.

Mutual assistance is the neighbourly thing to do. Normally the neighbour will welcome the help and be grateful. But things are not always normal and some neighbours spurn help and are intent on self-destruction.

This is what is happening in neighbouring Burundi. The country has been on fire for the last four years, most of it started by Burundian authorities. There have been many attempts to help but the same authorities keep thwarting every effort.

The authorities have spurned all mediation efforts to end the crisis in their country and seem to be intent on isolating it from the region and indeed the world community.

They have also become increasingly defiant, refusing to accept responsibility for the crisis and rejecting advice on how to end it. Instead, they shift blame on neighbours who have nothing to gain whatsoever from it. But that does not make the problems go away.

The latest act of defiance came at the end of November when President Pierre Nkurunziza refused to attend a Summit meeting of the East African Community (EAC) in Arusha. He has since followed that up with a vow not to attend future summits in which Rwanda participates because the latter is an enemy.

President Nkurunziza’s defiance is especially a slap in the face for President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda as mediator in the Burundi conflict and current chairman of the EAC. Museveni has also been perceived to be soft on the Burundi authorities which may have encouraged their intransigence. 

Mediation was made necessary by the eruption of violence in Burundi following President Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a third term in contravention of the Arusha Accord that ended the previous conflict of many years.

To date, not much has come out of the mediation, which has frustrated former president of Tanzania, Benjamin Mkapa, the man assigned the role of facilitator in talks between opposing political forces.

And rather than make a movement towards a settlement, the Burundian leadership seems keener on picking a fight with whoever wants to help. They have quarrelled with the African Union for calling them out on violence against their citizens, urging them to respect their rights and putting the interests of the country before their own and return it to normalcy.

They have had wrangles with the European Union for similar reasons. More recently, they have ordered the United Nations Human Rights Office in Burundi closed and its representatives out of the country.

World leaders have pleaded with President Nkurunziza to not allow his country sink into chaos. He continues to ignore them. And to make it impossible for anyone to reach him, he has become a hermit, holed up in his rural home, hidden from his own people and unable to travel within and outside his country.

All those dealing with Burundi have assumed: that its leadership has the decency to do the right thing for which it was established. And if for some reason it was unable to discharge this cardinal duty, it would have the humility to accept help.

This assumption was obviously wrong as events there and the behaviour of the current leadership show.

Still, the question must be asked: where do the Burundi authorities get the confidence to defy everyone: the East African Community, the African Union, the EU, and the UN?

Whatever the answer, it certainly does not come from the will of the people of Burundi. Actually, the actions of the leaders are contrary to that will and, if not checked, will destroy the country.

It is all very well for an individual or a group of individuals to wish to self-destruct. However, they have no right to take others along with them, malign neighbours or show contempt for shared institutions.

And for this reason they must be restrained from such reckless path to destruction. Leaders of the East African Community, the African Union, and indeed the international community have that duty. 

Twitter: @jrwagatare

 The views expressed in this article are of the author.