Marked by the tragic past of this sub-region of Africa, the international community wasted no time in joining forces for Burundi, a small…


Burundian crisis: a failure for diplomacy?

Marked by the tragic past of this sub-region of Africa, the international community wasted no time in joining forces for Burundi, a small country neighbouring Rwanda, today one of the poorest in the world. Since the start of 2015, the African Union (AU), United Nations and European Union have appealed in vain to Pierre Nkurunziza not to seek a third term in office, in the hope of avoiding the political deadlock caused by his re-election last August. President Nkurunziza has chosen to turn a deaf ear, which has deeply upset the international community because he was particularly active in ending the civil war that marked the country from 1993 to 2005, when the former CNDD-FDD militia of the Head of State took power through the democratic process.

This third term in office is perceived as a direct threat to the Arusha peace agreements of 2003 and to the fragile balance of power obtained between the former majority-Tutsi army (ex-FAB) and the Hutu militia (FDD, FNL and CNDD), following UN-backed negotiations. Yet the current government clearly takes issue with the division of administrative and military posts between Hutu (60%) and Tutsi (40%) as a result of these agreements, which it deems it arbitrary as it doesn’t match the country’s ethnic breakdown (85% Hutu, 14% Tutsi and 1% Twas). For many international agents, first and foremost the UN, it’s an inadmissible dispute as they see it as a destabilising factor for the country, which risks a return to the massacres along ethnic lines that punctuated the years of civil war. Indeed, since his re-election in August 2015, contested by the entire international community, the Nkurunziza camp has led a bloody repression of all opposition, forcing many political activists and civil society actors into exile.  There have also been multiple targeted assassinations against the heads of the two camps, while one opposition party has taken up arms, actively supported by their Rwandan neighbours. “Both camps want to fight, explains a former CNDD-FDD member today close to Hussein Radjabu, one of the supposed heads of the armed opposition. Everyone involved has already used arms to resolve their differences, it’s what they know. In Burundi, you need to be realistic, no one believes in peace anymore.”


Symbolic results for the UN

However, 2016 has given new momentum to attempts to resolve the political crisis led by the international community, aware that another war in this small country would risk destabilising the entire Great Lakes region. A constant stream of diplomatic visits took place in Bujumbura during February and March. The Secretary General of the UN Ban Ki-Moon himself travelled from New York to meet with the President and members of the opposition still present. A UN Human Rights Monitoring Mission was then authorised to visit the country. Some symbolic measures have been agreed by Bujumbura, such as the release of 2,000 prisoners, crammed into the country’s overcrowded prisons, although this does not equate to the release of the thousands of political prisoners arrested since the start of 2015. Since the UN visit, the Burundian government has been talking up reports of good faith with the international community, yet these measures have no real scope. It has also lifted about fifteen international arrest warrants against civil society and political opposition figures in exile, however nineteen warrants remain in force. Similarly, two private radio stations, Rema FM and Isanganiro, have been authorised to resume broadcasting, while those deemed closest to the opposition, such as the RPA and Bonesha FM are still banned. Half measures obtained after tough negotiations with no progress on the peaceful resolution of the crisis. The government is still refusing to include any person who has been involved in violence, i.e. all key actors in the Burundian opposition, in the AU-backed mediation, thus blocking the channels for dialogue put in place by the international community.


The divided and ineffective African Union

The mediation, which the AU entrusted to Yoweri Museveni, did not result in the implementation of channels for effective communication between the government and opposition. Disputed within his own territory during elections tainted by fraud, the Ugandan President had to give up his post in March 2016 to the former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mpaka, who will no doubt find it hard to overcome the rivalries and clear divisions that exist within the AU, regarding the situation in Burundi. As confirmed during the visit of four African Heads of State, from Mauritius, South Africa, Gabon and Senegal in March, some presidents are not in favour of increased involvement by the AU in Burundi, in particular the use of an armed intervention force. It speaks volumes that three presidents from the Great Lakes region (Uganda, Rwanda and Congo) must also decide whether to seek a third term of office in their own countries.


A European Union commitment to uncertainty

Only the European Union seems to have noted the political impasse that has affected the country for the past year and in mid-March decided to cut its Direct Budget Support to Burundi, which represented nearly 20% of the national budget, i.e. 432 million euros. Direct aid to the people is nevertheless maintained to avoid any additional impact on the already disastrous living conditions of its mainly rural population. The effects of these new sanctions weren’t long in coming and at the end of March the Minister of National Education requested “a contribution” from its officials “to buy uniforms for International Labour Day” on the 1st of May.

The Burundian government can however still rely on revenue from its troops involved in the UN peacekeeping forces (MINUSCOM in the Central African Republic) and in the AU (AMISOM in Somalia) to finance the expenditure most crucial to its survival (Defence and Police). And that’s a clear sign of the difficulties encountered by the international community in standing united against the Burundian government, which every day drives the country closer to war.

Agnès Richieri