Burundian Peacekeeping Abroad Can Fuel Conflict At Home

Feb 13, 2016
Originally published on February 17, 2016 3:33 pm

It may not sound like a reward, being a soldier chosen to fight as a peacekeeper in war-torn Somalia or Central African Republic. But for soldiers from one of the poorest countries in the world, Burundi, it's seen as an opportunity of a lifetime. Soldiers angle to wear the blue helmet — and to pull an international salary and other benefits, covered by the United Nations.

But just how far will soldiers go to obtain a peacekeeping post? Some may be going to troubling extremes. The U.N. has ordered three Burundian peacekeepers posted in the Central African Republic to return to Burundi for human rights abuses committed in their home country. It's lifted the lid on a disturbing incentive system that begins with how coveted these postings are.

Yolande Bouka is a researcher for the Institute for Security Studies based in South Africa. She says U.N. peacekeepers earn at least 10 times the salary they would make as soldiers at home in Burundi. "Even more important for some of the soldiers is the premium they get should they die in action," she says. "These international missions provide a very generous package for the family that's left behind."

But to win these posts, a soldier has to pledge loyalty to Burundi's government, which has used its security forces to torture and kill members of the political opposition. The crisis began in April when the president ran for a third term in office that critics said was unconstitutional. Since then, hundreds have been killed, hundreds of thousands have fled, and there are fears that the violence is awakening buried ethnic divisions.

Bouka says the military is ethnically mixed and has shown signs of splitting apart. There's even been a failed coup. But the military has nevertheless cohered behind the president. In a country with massive unemployment, Bouka says, soldiers don't want to jeopardize the chance at a foreign posting that could set up their family for life. "There have been some in the military who believe that if they engage in violence — violently suppress opposition or the rebellion — they will be able to reap the reward of their allegiance by being sent abroad," she says.

The decision by the U.N. to repatriate the three soldiers has already rippled across the ranks of the more than 5,000 Burundian peacekeepers deployed in African hotspots. One of those soldiers spoke without attribution to NPR, because he didn't have official permission to speak. He wrote by email that the dismissals had sent a message: "[T]hose who kill to please the power expecting a mission as reward will reduce the pace."

The U.N. has warned Burundi's government that the organization will continue to vet soldiers on peacekeeping missions as reports emerge of atrocities in Burundi.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

We'll stay overseas for a few more minutes to tell you about a career path that might not sound terribly attractive - serving as a peacekeeper in war-torn Somalia or Central African Republic. But for soldiers from one of the poorest countries in the world, Burundi, it is seen as the opportunity of a lifetime. Soldiers angle to wear the blue helmet and earn an international salary and other benefits covered by the United Nations. NPR's Gregory Warner reports on just how far some soldiers will go to obtain a peacekeeping post.

GREGORY WARNER, BYLINE: Some will apparently kill for it. The United Nations just ordered three peacekeepers posted in the Central African Republic to return to Burundi for human rights abuses committed there. It's lifted the lid on a disturbing incentives system that starts with how coveted these postings are. Yolande Bouka is a researcher for the Institute for Security Studies based in South Africa. She says soldiers can earn at least ten times the salary that they'd make at home in Burundi, and there are other benefits.

YOLANDE BOUKA: For some of the soldiers, what is also very important is the premium they get should they die in action. These international missions provide a very generous package for the family that's left behind.

WARNER: But to win these posts, a soldier has to pledge loyalty to Burundi's government. And Burundi has used its security forces to torture and kill members of the political opposition. The crisis began in April when the president ran for an apparently illegal third term in office. Since then, hundreds have been killed, hundreds of thousands have fled, and there are fears that violence is awakening buried ethnic tensions. Bouka says the military is ethically mixed and it's showing signs of splitting apart. There's even been a failed coup. But the military has mostly cohered behind the president in large part because in a country of such massive unemployment, soldiers don't want to jeopardize the chance at a foreign posting that could set up their family for life.

BOUKA: There have been some individuals in the military who believe that if they engage in violence - violently suppress opposition or the rebellion, they will be able to reap the reward of their allegiance by being sent abroad.

WARNER: The decision by the U.N. to repatriate these three soldiers has already rippled across the ranks of the 5,000-odd Burundian peacekeepers deployed in African hotspots. One of those soldiers, speaking to NPR without attribution because he didn't have permission to speak, wrote by email that the dismissals had sent a message. He said, quote, "those who kill to please the power, expecting a mission as reward, will reduce the pace." The United Nations has warned Burundi's government that they will continue to vet and re-vet soldiers on peacekeeping missions. Gregory Warner, NPR News, Nairobi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.