Burundi continues to avoid international headlines despite slipping further into internal conflict that threatens to mutate into all-out civil war. Ever since President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a controversial – his opponents allege unconstitutional – third term last year, political violence in the impoverished African country has escalated.
After his 2015 announcement that he was to run for the presidency again, Nkurunziza was temporarily displaced by a coup before being reinstated by loyalist soldiers. Ever since, arbitrary arrests, political assassinations, grenade attacks and hounding of innocent civilians has engulfed Burundi, with its African Union (AU) colleagues looking on helplessly.
A recent decision to hold talks between the government and opposition forces under the mediation of former Tanzania President Benjamin Mkapa have been delayed because of the refusal of either side to hear the other out. In short, more significant international pressure is required to prevent Burundi relapsing into civil war, which killed some 200,000 people between 1993 and 2006 and displaced thousands more.
One country that has seamlessly manoeuvred itself into a position of influence on the African continent in the past few years is China. Whilst Burundi does not host the natural resources that China craves, Beijing is still its most important trading partner.
Burundi-China relations date back to shortly after the former’s independence from Belgium in 1962 although ties between the two made an inauspicious start. During preparations for Burundi’s independence celebrations in October 1962, the Communist Chinese ambassador for Tanganyika – one Ho Ying – made the short trip across the border to Bujumbura in anticipation of leading the Chinese delegation. However, the Burundian government – supposedly under pressure from the USA – decided instead to invite a Nationalist Chinese delegate from Chiang Kai-shek’s Taiwan.
Ho Ying withdrew citing ‘the imperialist scheme of using the Chiang Kai-shek clique to undermine Sino-Burundi friendly relations’ and it was not until December 1963 that Mao’s China established formal relations with the Kingdom of Burundi.
Despite pumping several million dollars’ worth of Official Development Assistance into Burundi, and in spite of claiming a desire to increase cooperation with Bujumbura, the Chinese have stopped short of providing a constructive or influential alliance. Typical of its foreign policy in general, China has chosen to overlook the growing crisis and wait out the consequences, content in the knowledge that its economic support will always be welcomed, if not actively required.
This approach has severely hampered Chinese attempts to be seen as a responsible global power. Indeed, Beijing tends to adopt a low-key attitude in all its foreign affairs, with the exception of asserting its ambitious territorial claims. Its belligerence over such claims is equally, if not more, dangerous than its procrastination over regional troubles such as those currently affecting Burundi.
Africa needs to be seen to deal with Africa’s problems. However, where a global power is able to exert its influence in a positive manner then there is no shame in accepting help. Unfortunately for Burundi – and many other states that have critical economic relations with China – such assistance is unlikely to come soon from Beijing.
This opens up the potential for continuing political violence which could degenerate into a bloody, and ethnically-divided, civil war the likes of which have been seen in the region before. Perhaps Bujumbura would have been better served maintaining ties with Taiwan, rather than Taipei’s mainland cousin.