Unblocking Burundi’s Peace Process: Political Parties, Political Prisoners, and Freedom of Press
Africa Briefing N°1
22 Jun 2000
Burundi’s two-year-old peace process has arrived at a critical stage. The mediator Nelson Mandela, on his latest visit to Bujumbura on 12-14 June, reiterated his support for rebel demands that President Pierre Buyoya’s government release all political prisoners regardless of their crimes and restore the rights of political parties. In March he also called for the restoration of press freedoms and the disbandment of all regroupment camps. Only on this last issue has compromise been reached, with Burundi's government promising to close the camps by 31 July. The government argued that the issue of prisoners was more complex than it might appear at first glance and blamed Tanzania’s facilitation team and certain Hutu parties for spreading propaganda. President Buyoya regards – as do the majority of Tutsis – those in jail to be armed bandits and terrorists who participated in the massacres following the assassination of President Melchior Ndadaye in October 1993.
At a time when the peace process is in its final phase, Nelson Mandela’s demands on the Burundian government are justified for several reasons. First, President Buyoya, who seized power for the second time in a July 1996 military putsch, must show a sign of good faith to earn his place in the post agreement transition period. Secondly, all rebel groups must be brought into the peace talks and their demands considered. There can be no credible negotiations while rebel supporters languish in Burundi’s prisons on grounds that they present a threat to state security. Thirdly, there cannot be constructive dialogue with political parties whose activities are proscribed by the authorities. Finally, press freedoms are important because debate is essential for the success of the process and chances for an accord will remain in jeopardy unless the population is fully informed of progress in Arusha.To a certain extent the issues raised by Nelson Mandela on prisoners, parties and press should be the result of the negotiations themselves rather than a prerequisite.
However, the government must respond in some measure with gestures of compromise, to reach out to Burundi’s population and force debate on the changes expected in the transition period. The demands were made to strengthen the peace process by permitting the participation of the rebels and of the Burundian people. In this debate, the government’s reluctance is not without foundation. The government points out that Mandela’s strategy to fully support the demands of Hutu-dominated parties and factions risks alienating Tutsis. It also feels that it is unfair to apply pressure to only one party to the conflict. However this does not absolve the government from the duty to show good faith at this critical moment.