ON Thursday a meaty delegation of four African presidents arrived in Bujumbura to put their might behind the inter-Burundi political dialogue process.
The leaders include South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma, Gabon’s Ali Bongo, Mauritania’s Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, Senegal’s Macky Sall and Ethiopia’s Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn.
The delegation, sent by the African Union’s new chairman, Chad’s President Idriss Deby Itno, was led by Zuma, a former mediator in the inter-Burundi peace talks that began in 2000 between the then Burundi transition government and rebels.
The search for a solution to the Burundi crisis will continue on February 29 during a Heads of State Summit of the East African Community that is comprised of Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda and Burundi.
The journey so far, has been notably rocky.
The December decision by the AU, to deploy the African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi (MAPROBU) was seen by some as unprecedented and novel, for an institution that is traditionally reluctant to intervene in internal disputes. Over the next several weeks, the AU stayed firm despite the Burundi government’s threat that it would treat the deployment as an invasion.
However, in January the continental body made an about-turn by deciding not to deploy, preferring instead “to hold consultations on the inclusive Inter-Burundian Dialogue.” This is the context in which the Zuma-led delegations came to Burundi.
This dramatic policy reversal has damaged the AU’s credibility and definitely weakened its position in Burundi president Pierre’s Nkurunziza’s eyes. It has also taken off the table a useful instrument that could have created an enabling environment for genuine peace talks.
To understand the larger implications one should draw insights from the Arusha peace process on Burundi, which I was privileged to work on as part of a South African NGO that assisted President Nelson Mandela’s mediation team, and later President Mbeki in the ceasefire talks.
Uganda’s President Museveni (L), Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta (C), and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma (right background) in Arusha, May 2015 for the first series of summits on the Burundi crisis.
Then-retired Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere was the architect of the idea of deploying African forces into Burundi. As mediator, he argued that neutral forces would create an environment for a political solution. When Mandela took over, he spent several months persuading exiles to return and participate in expanded talks. Many said they could not entrust their safety to government forces. In response, Pretoria deployed the South Africa Protection Service Detachment (SAPSD) as a confidence building measure.
In 2003, SAPSD transitioned into the African Mission in Burundi (AMIB), and in 2004, this Force was rehatted into the United Nations Mission in Burundi (ONUB). These deployments enabled exiles to return and created the psychological safety of mind for refugees to come home. This enabled the mediation team to expand the talks and instill local ownership.
Similar challenges are present in the current crisis. The government’s true opponents are in exile, 250,000 citizens have fled as refugees and rebel groups abound. Inclusive peace will remain elusive unless these Burundians are brought on board and yet it is unlikely that they will accept to return without security guarantees. As Arusha has shown, such guarantees will be difficult to provide without some sort of neutral force.
Has AU’s reversal strengthened Nkurunziza?
Unless the AU has other tools of leverage, all it has left are its powers of persuasion to change Nkurunziza’s calculus. Persuasion however, has its limits. Nyerere and Mandela were exemplars in this regard, but they did not always succeed. In fact, both leaders were rejected as mediators on several occasions. However, they had at their disposal several instruments to keep the process moving. One was a regional embargo that Uganda, Rwanda, Kenya and Tanzania imposed on Burundi after the 1996 coup.
It was suspended in 1999 (not lifted) to encourage peace negotiations and was only removed after the process was concluded in 2005. Regional unity was another vital tool of leverage. The countries mentioned earlier had a common vision, and programme of action for the process.
All of this was sealed by the aura of moral authority of Nyerere and Mandela, which brought tremendous credibility, visibility and unity of effort to the effort. The key lesson is the need for a common vision and a comprehensive strategy that uses all available instruments in concert, and not an ad-hoc process, as seems to be the case today.
Is Burundi really in the tinderbox?
When mediation efforts started in May 2015 the death toll stood at 18, with 40,000 fleeing as refugees. By July the death toll climbed to 77, and the number of refugees, to 177,000. A wave of revenge killings set in around September and by the end of that month, the death toll was at 150, with 192,000 refugees.
November saw an uptick in violence as the government launched a search operation to flush out weapons. Refugee numbers swelled to 216,000 and the death toll rose to 300. December 12 saw the highest number of casualties in a single day of violence as the government conducted a crackdown in Bujumbura after a coordinated rebel attack on several military bases.
Authorities put the day’s death toll at 87 but unofficial estimates indicate that fatalities were much higher. Indeed the UN reported that nine mass graves were discovered including one on a military base which contained up to 100 bodies.
All these events are taking place in a larger context of systemic and deepening violence. Since December, ethnic based incitement has become much more explicit and frequent, raising fears that community resiliencies will be overwhelmed and lead to a repeat of Burundi’s history of mass atrocities.
Disturbing patterns of violence have also surfaced such as abductions, kidnappings for ransom and bodily mutilations—taboos in Burundian culture.
Opposition forces have radicalised, as several rebel groups have appeared, the most recent one being announced on February 11. Armed vigilantes have mushroomed in some of the neighbourhoods affected by the violence and clashes between them and the ruling party’s Imbonerakure militia have become common. The military has suffered a wave of desertions and government reprisals triggered by a failed coup attempt in May.
To forestall further attrition, parallel chains of command have been created but this is taking a toll on professionalism and is likely to fuel more instability. These indicators suggest that all the elements are in place for a more protracted conflict.
Which interests are at play?
Regional disunity is a major liability this time round. At Arusha the region’s leaders acted in concert. When some armed groups repudiated Mandela for instance, the region closed ranks and restricted their ability to operate outside Burundi. Economic and other pressures were also applied against the government such as when it launched a so—called “internal peace process” as an alternative to Arusha.
These measures succeeded because the region was united, and fully behind the process. Such unity is currently lacking. As Arusha’s architect, Tanzania was seen as the “natural” leader that might have mobilised others around a common approach. However, the crisis erupted while Tanzania’s ruling Chama Cha Mapinduzi (Party of Revolution – CCM) was in the middle of campaigns and bracing for a change of leadership.
President John Magufuli’s new administration signaled willingness to lead but much ambiguity remains. While pushing for talks Tanzania initially rejected the idea of an African force. A few weeks later it championed the idea, only to reject it again at the AU Summit in January.
The AU sponsored mediator, Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni, was preoccupied with elections in his own country and managed to bring the parties together only once. This is in contrast to the key role Uganda played previously as Chairman of the Regional Initiative on Burundi which put the region’s full weight behind Mandela.
Interstate tensions are a major factor. Relations between Tanzania and Rwanda deteriorated when Jakaya Kikwete was in office. Attempts were made to resolve them, not least the personal and private intervention of Museveni, but it is unclear where matters stand between President Kagame and his new Tanzanian counterpart.
Tensions between Rwanda and Burundi have worsened, with Bujumbura accusing Kigali of harboring rebels and Rwanda accusing its neighbour of integrating Interahamwe and FDLR into its security services.
Anti-Kagame rallies and ethnic language
On February 13 the Burundian authorities organised anti-Kagame rallies marked by widespread ethnic-based incendiary language.
Kigali for its part is signaling that the Burundi crisis might morph into an existential threat. Three narratives are dominating Rwandan media debates about this worrisome sense of threat. First, intergroup cohesion among Rwandese, which is still fragile, is being undermined by the Burundian events.
Second, as the situation polarises, memories of genocide, which remain deeply embedded in Rwandan social attitudes, are being revived.
Third, references to the Rwandan president are prominent in the narratives being deployed by the Burundian government against its opponents.
The regional environment is therefore tenuous and this serves as a strategic impediment to the search for an inclusive peace in Burundi.
—The views here are the author’s, not the organisation for which he works. Nantulya worked on the Arusha peace talks and the ceasefire negotiations mediated by Presidents Mandela and Mbeki. He has lived and worked in Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, Burundi, South Africa, and the two Sudans.