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The solution for Burundi

By Andrew M. Mwenda

Do the suffering people of Burundi a favour in their ongoing civil war; don’t help them

Burundi seems to be sliding into chaos. Innocent civilians are being killed in droves. News reports from the capital, Bujumbura, are both sickening and horrifying. Everyone wants the international community to do something. It is human nature to be revolted by such human suffering and desire to do something to save the lives of innocents who become victims of such madness. But this human instinct for kindness is rarely a basis for good policy. On the contrary, contemporary history is replete with examples of interventions to save human lives that make a bad situation worse.

In 2003, the U.S.government and her “coalition of the willing” overthrew Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein claiming (among other things) that they wanted to remove a dictator who was killing his own people and establish a democracy. This utopian dream collapsed on the blood-soaked streets of Baghdad in a brutal civil war that the U.S. allies lost. There was another foreign intervention to “save the people of Libya” from Muammar Gadhafi led by the UK and France with the U.S. behind them. Today the state in Libya has collapsed and anarchy rules that land. As I write this article, there is an outcry that the government of Bashar Al Assad in Syria is killing its own people. But foreign intervention to “save lives” has inflicted more death and human suffering.


The evidence that foreign intervention does not work is overwhelming. Even where there are no ulterior motives, such interventions often lead to disaster. The most genuine foreign intervention I know was Tanzania’s invasion of Uganda to remove Idi Amin. It led to state collapse and anarchy. And it was not until President Julius Nyerere withdrew Tanzanian troops from Uganda and left Milton Obote and Yoweri Museveni to tussle it out in Luwero that a solution became possible. That solution was the decisive military victory of NRA over UNLA. It laid the foundation for a stable Uganda.

The most dispassionate and sobering argument on how to resolve civil wars was made by Edward Luttwak in a 1999 article titled `Give War a Chance’ in Foreign Affairs. Luttwak argued that left alone, a conflict is able to “run its course” and end when one group is strong enough to win decisively or when both groups are sufficiently exhausted and therefore willing to accommodate one another. “War brings peace only after a culminating phase of violence,” Luttwak wrote, “Hopes of military success must fade for accommodation to become more attractive than further combat.”

Available evidence supports Luttwak’s hypothesis. My friend Jeremy Weinstein (now deputy US ambassador to the UN) has shown that in the civil wars that took place on this planet between 1945 and 2000, war did not recur in 85 percent of the countries that experienced military victory, while war resumed in 50 percent of the conflicts settled by means of negotiation. The hazard of another war drops by over 80 percent when there is a decisive military outcome compared to 32 percent when there are UN peacekeepers.

The reason why foreign interventions often fail is because of the tendency of the international community to prescribe one solution for every country regardless of circumstances and context. First, a ceasefire between the belligerents,second a power-sharing arrangement and third, elections on a multiparty basis. Power sharing arrangements tend to break down (as we have seen with Burundi now) because those who constitute them often tend to retain the capacity for resorting to civil war. On the other hand, victory destroys the loser’s organization, making it difficult to resume war.

Prof. James Fearon at Stanford University has shown that of the roughly 55 civil wars fought for control of a central government between 1955 and 2005, 75 percent ended with a military victory for one side. Only in 16 percent of the cases did a power-sharing arrangement work. Fearon argues that power-sharing agreements rarely work in large part because civil wars cause combatants to be organized in a way that produces mutually reinforcing fears and temptations: combatants are afraid that the other side will use force to grab power and at the same time are tempted to use force to grab power by themselves.

Civil wars are more difficult to end by negotiation compared to interstate wars. This is because interstate combatants can always retreat to their territories. However, civil warriors must live together after the killings stop. This makes compromise extremely difficult in large part because the stakes are the control of the new government, making the contest a matter of life and death.This is not to say that foreign interventions do not work. Rather, the conditions that make them work are rare and difficult to recreate.

From the above, we can say that the most realistic, even though equally the most painful solution is to let Burundians fight to the bitter end. I have utmost confidence in the people of Burundi, that left on their own they will resolve their current instability themselves. The struggle may be long and bloody. But that may be the necessary price the people of Burundi have to pay in order to secure lasting peace. Foreign help may achieve short-term humanitarian objectives but only at the price of undermining the incentives that create a durable solution to the political problem of that country.

Most of those calling for foreign intervention in Burundi are certainly well meaning and kind people. I admire their feelings but disagree with their conclusion.The road to hell is often paved with good intentions. If external powers intervene to end killings in Burundi, the internal forces seeking a violent resolution of the conflict will not die away. Instead they will most probably go into abeyance until foreign forces leave and they resort to war. In other words, foreign powers will only postpone but will most probably not end Burundi’s carnage.

Burundi is back on the throes of civil war today because of prior foreign intervention, which imposed a solution on the belligerents through the Arusha peace process. Those calling for foreign intervention see the people of Burundi as victims of bad government. Foreign intervention will make them passive recipients of international charity. I want the people of Burundi to be active participants in their own emancipation. It is only by taking charge of their destiny (even at a high human cost) that a lasting solution will emerge. My solution is painful but realistic. The rest is bunk.

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