Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza File picture: Evrard Ngendakumana/Reuters
The world has turned a blind eye to what is happening in Burundi, with no independent media on the ground and human rights monitors virtually confined to their hotels in the capital. All international media has been ejected, and independent journalists operate underground.

But the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi garnered enough reliable information to put out a report last month, which was horrifying in its details of mass atrocities and crimes against humanity being committed by state agents and their allies. The commission’s findings mirror those of the International Criminal Court (ICC).

A Burundi minister had said to me, when I interviewed him in Bujumbura three years ago, that they would liquidate the Tutsi population - not how the Hutus tried to in Rwanda in 1994 by mass killing, but slowly and quietly, over a protracted period of time. “We will do it the same way as we stir our sima (pap) - nice and slowly,” he said.

Burundi’s leaders want to avoid the glare of the world’s media and the AU military intervention that would be triggered by blatant atrocities.

Well, Pierre Nkurunziza’s regime is winning at the Machiavellian game they are playing, and African leaders are sitting on their hands - despite talking about African solutions for African problems.

South Africa seems to have adopted a hands-off approach to Burundi, leaving efforts on conflict resolution to the East African Community (EAC). The problem is that the EAC has proved incapable of bringing pressure to intransigent President Nkurunziza to enter into a real political dialogue with the opposition.

Six EAC summits failed to persuade the ruling party to attend talks chaired by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and mediated by Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa. Nkurunziza has made a mockery of the process, playing the mediators for fools.

Mkapa was so exasperated by Nkurunziza’s failure to co-operate, and the inaction of regional leaders despite his numerous warnings, that he resigned as mediator in February this year, shortly after the EAC summit.

The perpetual friction between regional leaders has also not been conducive to bringing regional pressure to bear on the Burundian government. Tension between Uganda, the chair of the Burundi Peace talks, and Rwanda, the EAC chair, have made a regional solution more elusive.

If anyone was well suited to the task of bringing the Burundian stakeholders together it was Mkapa, as he was instrumental in drafting the Arusha Peace Accords with Nelson Mandela and Julius Nyerere.

In the absence of the other two mediators, Mkapa had the institutional memory and political commitment to see the process through. But conflict resolution is only possible if the main protagonists are willing to come to the table, and Nkurunziza has refused to meet his opponents. Part of the reason is that he is holding all the cards and has little incentive to compromise when busy consolidating Hutu power.

Mkapa raised the red flag when Nkurunziza set about amending the constitution, dismantling two-thirds of the provisions of the Arusha Accords, including the power-sharing structure. He urged regional leaders to act before the situation became irrever­sible. He also called for a review of the proposed constitution, but the region failed to act.

The constitution has now changed, giving the president the power to overrule parliament. There has been a purge of Tutsi officers from the military, with many killed or abducted, and the ruthless state sponsored militia, known as the Imbonerakure, has been placed within the military.

The Imbonerakure has been implicated in mass atrocities with the police, military and intelligence, which ended up killing more than 1700 people since 2015.

Nkurunziza, his inner circle and the Imbonerakure are responsible for some of the most serious crimes such as summary executions; arbitrary arrests and detentions; acts of torture; sexual violence and enforced disappearances.

The 2018 report of the UN Commission confirmed the existence of mass graves in a number of areas, as well as lists of civilians and military members marked for execution.

The pattern of violence has shifted from overt atrocities in 2015 to the more covert by the end of 2016. Since then gross violations of human rights have been committed in secret in what could be called black sites.

The UN report confirmed that numerous secret locations existed where torture, rape, mutilation and killings regularly occurred.

This information was confirmed by human rights monitors, media reports, and Imbonerakure defectors.

Burundi has gone from a situation of relative stability where, under the Arusha Peace Agreement in 2000, political parties were home to both Hutus and Tutsis, to one where the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy party has been doggedly pursuing a Hutu nationalist agenda.

The great tragedy is that the Arusha Accords had gone a long way towards addressing the root causes of Burundi’s violent past, which culminated in genocides in 1972 and 1993.

Now all of that progress which Mandela worked so hard to achieve is confined to the dustbin of history.

What prevails is the pretence of calm which masks the genocidal intents of the incumbent regime. As the ruling party gears up for the 2020 elections, the atrocities will escalate as will the dangerously divisive ethnic rhetoric - all creating fertile ground for what could become another genocide.

The fact that Nkurunziza says he will step aside and not pursue another term in office next year is little consolation considering he has consolidated a Hutu nationalist infrastructure.

Insiders say he wants to make sure he remains in power at least until next year as a number of Tutsi generals will be retiring in 2020, and he wants to replace them with Hutu generals who share his ethnically exclusive vision for Burundi.

If the regional community is paralysed or lacks the political will to act, it falls to the AU to step in as was envisioned in its Charter - to prevent gross violations of human rights through a rapid reaction force that will militarily intervene. So far, the AU has been ineffective after abandoning its December 2015 decision to deploy a 5000-strong protection force. This would have been an important signal from the region that such human rights abuses will not be tolerated and that civilians would be protected.

But the AU failed to flex its collective muscle after Nkurunziza threatened to shoot any AU troops entering the country. Ever since, he has carried out what many would call a reign of terror with impunity.

If South Africa is looking to show leadership once again on Burundi, it needs to strategise how it can use its position as chair of the AU next year to re-introduce the idea of an intervention force, which had emanated from former AU Commission chair Dr Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma. The initiative was stymied in 2016, not only due to Nkurunziza’s threats, but due to a lack of political will in the region, and on the part of then-president Jacob Zuma who chaired the extraordinary AU summit which decided on whether to deploy an intervention force. In the end, the region shied away from taking decisive action.

If the AU fails to act, and if Burundi does descend into full-blown genocide, we will have only ourselves to blame.

* Shannon Ebrahim is Independent Media's foreign editor.