THE battle lines have been drawn for months, and it fell on long-winded Yoweri Museveni to try and pull any sort of rabbit out of the Burundi hat.
The Ugandan president arrived in the capital Bujumbura on Tuesday for last-ditch talks with a lot of fanfare, but it would have ranked among his greatest feats if he had wangled anything of substance out of the situation.
The crisis in the tiny country of 10 million has in quick succession thrown up a refugee crisis, scores of protester deaths and an attempted coup, and solving it in the two days that he was in town would have bordered on extraordinary sorcery.
As it were, Museveni flew out without a deal, only noting that “the ruling party in Burundi and the opposition parties and the civil society have agreed to negotiate expeditiously, intensively… in order to reach an agreement,” as he left town in what felt like an obligatory visit rather than any serious effort at untangling the wires.
Museveni, appointed mediator last week by the five-nation East African Community (EAC) of which Burundi is a member, had arrived by road via Rwanda where he would have run his options by president Paul Kagame, a man he knows all too well from their days in the bush.
His mandate in Burundi was to push stalled talks between president Pierre Nkurunziza’s ruling CNDD-FDD party and opposition groups, but it is now damage limitation time.
With the two sides so far apart in their positions and only a week to go to a controversial election, the EAC can only keep up appearances, waiting to instead deal with the resulting election fallout.
Nkurunziza already regards the EAC with suspicion after he was nearly deposed while attending its meeting in neighbouring Tanzania, where leaders were spotted backslapping despite news of the attempted coup filtering through during the meeting. And lately, Bujumbura has taken to more pointedly accusing Rwanda of backing dissident soldiers and militia, who seem to be forming a rebellion, a charge Kigali denies.
Museveni had earlier said in a statement he would “establish a dialogue among warring political factions” but it is hard to see what ground he covered.
Nkurunziza is readying for a third term bid in a presidential poll on July 21 following months of violence, a ballot that the opposition has said they will boycott. To the incumbent, Museveni’s main mission was to convince them to take part and legitimise the vote.
Opposition groups insist that another five-year term would violate a peace deal that paved the way to end a dozen years of civil war in 2006.
As such, their position was that the Ugandan leader must convince Nkurunziza to step down. “It is black and white,” one of their leaders, Leonce Ngendakumana, said.
Strong and mean Nkurunziza
On the surface there is no reason for Nkurunziza to acquiesce: he has firmly re-established power following that almost surreal week in mid-May that saw the author of the coup attempt, General Godefroid Niyombare, come close to taking the reins of power before a dramatic reversal of fortunes.
Niyombare has since melted away, while Nkurunziza ruthlessly purged his allies. He now has firm control of all the important state institutions from the judiciary and electoral commission to disciplined forces (including militias) and the state broadcasting firm. In other words he will conduct the elections, count the votes and announce the result.
To further add to his leverage, he scored a widely-expected landslide win in May 29 parliamentary polls, but which were snubbed by the opposition. To cement his position of strength, the international community has been long on rhetoric but short on any substantial punitive action—Burundi is still too minor a geopolitical player to attract the heavy guns.
Even the African Union, despite making its displeasure with the legislative polls and holding the potent economic tool of Burundi’s involvement in the peacekeeping mission in Somalia, has recently gone off the boil, adopting almost a wait-and-see attitude. The only concession it has been able to wring from Nkurunziza was the postponement of the elections by a week.
Nkurunziza can further count on major support from the rural population where the majority of votes live, and where he has almost messianic status.
The opposition, despite its hardline posturing, has not helped its case much. It’s ranks are in disarray, despite its attempt to keep up the pressure through sporadic protests: their momentum was sapped when the putsch flopped.
It has also lacked a figurehead to rally behind—Agathon Rwasa is the more recognisable leader, but even he can only go through the motions.
Beyond its opposition to a third term, it has offered scant by way of options, lacking a coherent ‘why-you-should-vote-for-us’ pitch.
Ordinarily, Museveni is a poor choice of mediator, despite his decades-long ambitions to be the regional heavyweight. Few opposition sides tend to trust him; his attempt to mediate the Kenya election fallout of 2007 came a cropper after he tried to pull a quick one on the Raila Odinga-led opposition.
He has also been propping up the rickety South Sudanese government, with thousands of Ugandan troops allied against rebel leader Riek Machar, while he also has boots in Somalia, where the resulting extremist threat has allowed him to tighten his decades-long domestic grip on power back home.
Earlier this month he resuscitated a tried-and-tested harassment tactic of political rivals, ahead of next year’s elections, with his two leading challengers arrested. They were later released, but it would have done little for his credentials with Burundi’s opposition, while even Nkurunziza likely had a knowing smile when they sat down for private talks.
“Museveni has been in power since 1986; can he help the Burundian president to understand that a mandate limit is important? No,” Frederic Bamvuginyumvira, deputy leader of the Front for Democracy in Burundi, said in an earlier interview with the media in Bujumbura when the pick of the Uganda president was announced.
“I expect nothing from his work.”
Museveni did not disappoint. Despite a whirlwind of meetings, where the opposition and civil society dutifully showed up, and where the government tut-tutted about the good feelings it had about the upcoming election, there was no breakthrough.
“Talk less about political power”
The tone had already been set: Museveni had urged Burundians to unite, talk less about political power and term limits and concentrate on becoming “producers for the market,” according to a statement e-mailed by the Ugandan presidency.
His was essentially a decoy mission: defusing pre-election political temperatures is only as far as the EAC can go for now, as it seeks to avoid wider region instability, especially as fears persist of the presence of anti-Kigali Hutu rebels in Burundi, who would have crossed over from their enclaves in the Democratic Republic of Congo, posing a direct risk to Rwanda.
The omens are not too good: Nearly 160,000 refugees have fled to neighbouring countries, according to the latest UN figures.
Last weekend, Burundian soldiers clashed with gunmen in a northern region near Rwanda, in what some called a new rebellion. Already, the clashes are being linked to the opposition and to supporters of the coup attempt, which would further harden positions.
Possible outcomes do not provide for a swift ending. Barring a Black Swan event, Nkurunziza will likely take the election, with his most urgent headache then being how to legitimise a flawed victory.
He could feasibly look to co-opt the rump of the opposition, from offering them a role in government to dangling reforms, including the carrot of a shortened term and early elections. In this kind of scenario, the opposition would have very little to lose, and would feasibly be keen to claim ownership of reforms in a post-Nkurunziza era.
This would also allow the EAC and its parent the AU to exit quietly with their pride intact, allowing them to call off the western powers, many who have cut vital aid to the landlocked central African nation, and claim an African solution.
Nkurunziza could also look to snuff out the opposition—so far the hope that they will hand him a lifeline by taking part in polls, in addition to a noisy if ineffectual international community, has kept this option in check, but an electoral mandate, however one-sided, would allow him more room for latitude.
A third option is to rule as if nothing has changed, which in the scheme of things is not too difficult a thing to do—the consequences are something Nkurunziza can live with, for a country that is not too integrated in the global-or even regional- economy
Either way East Africa will be looking on nervously at Burundi the next few weeks.