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De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
A suspect identified by a former rebel as being involved in the burial of bodies at a mass grave is detained by police officers at the scene of the grave in Mutakura, Burundi, 29 February 2016. REUTERS/Evrard Ngendakumana
Report 235 / Africa

Burundi: A Dangerous Third Term

The current political crisis has reopened the wounds of Burundi’s past. Hardliners now dominant in the government brutally stifle dissent, fuel ethnic hatred, and undermine the Arusha accord that framed Burundi’s peace for the past decade. The international community should push toward real dialogue, and prepare to intervene if violence escalates.

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Executive Summary

One year after President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term sparked the crisis, the situation remains critical. The radicalisation of the regime, which had been steadily increasing since the second post-conflict elections in 2010 and intensified by tensions over the third term in 2015, has seen the rise of the most hard-line leaders of the ruling party. These figures are determined to do away with the institutional system established by the Arusha accord – an agreement between Hutu and Tutsi elites in 2000 which put in place an ethnic quota system for state institutions, including the army, and established a two-term presidential limit. This political strategy to dismantle the accord and the return of violent rhetoric and tactics reminiscent of the civil war, have generated great fear within Burundian society – which, although deeply alarmed, has not yet given in to politicians’ tactics of inciting ethnic hatred. With the government and opposition invited to meet in Tanzania on 21 May, it is imperative that the guarantors of the Arusha accord call on them to engage in a meaningful dialogue on the future of the peace agreement and avoid a repeat of the country’s tragic past.

Violence, fear, socio-economic decline and deepening social fractures have characterised the beginning of the president’s third term. Following protests in April 2015 and Nkurunziza’s re-election in July, confrontation has taken the form of urban guerrilla warfare which, beyond the targeted assassinations, torture and disappearances, has had an insidious and devastating impact. By using ethnically-charged rhetoric and demonstrating an obvious desire to bring the democratic consensus of the Arusha accord to an end, the regime has ruptured its relations with part of the population. Some 250,000 Burundians have fled, including a significant portion of the political and economic establishment as well as civil society activists. The flight has drained Burundi of its most dynamic citizens and exposed divisions between the regime on one hand, and the army, the capital and the Tutsi community on the other. Trade between Bujumbura and the countryside has also been disrupted and, according to recent estimates, 10 per cent of the population (1.1 million people) are in need of humanitarian assistance of some kind.

The paradox at the heart of this confrontation is that while Burundi has democratised, the ruling party, the Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), has not. An institutionalised ethnic power-sharing system is completely divorced from a radicalised ethnically-homogenous party reverting to its historical roots (rebel leaders of the civil war era). As the opposition, now forced into exile, seems unable to overcome its own longstanding ethnic cleavages, the regime’s current strategy of repression (alleging a Tutsi conspiracy, breaking up the security services and creating units loyal to the regime) has revived fears of genocidal violence within the Tutsi community. There are no signs at present that the population is ready to be mobilised for violence on ethnic grounds. But the simmering social and humanitarian crisis, part of the population’s physical, political and economic insecurity, and fear itself, have created the perfect conditions for the situation’s further deterioration and ethnic polarisation.

While many Burundians and the international community believed the ethnic problem had been solved with the Arusha accord, it has returned to the fore with President Nkurunziza’s third term. To reverse this trend, a debate should be organised on the necessary amendments to the peace agreement. The regime is presently staging sham debates through a “national dialogue” which remains completely under its control. Ideally, a debate on the Arusha accord would take place in Burundi. This, however, would require the government to lift current restrictions on civil liberties (freedom of expression, press and assembly, etc.) and allow the opposition to return from exile.

Before these conditions are met and in order to overcome the current impasse, a discussion between the opposition and the government on the future of the Arusha accord should take place outside of the country under the auspices of the guarantors of the peace agreement. The meeting called by former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa on 21 May should be the first step in the dialogue on the future of the Arusha accord. In parallel, international actors, the UN and the African Union (AU) in particular, should take measures to prevent the crisis from descending into ethnic conflict and a humanitarian emergency, and prepare for an immediate intervention to prevent large-scale violence.

Recommendations

To reduce tensions, restart the dialogue and convince the government and the opposition to participate

To the government:

  1. Engage in constructive dialogue with the opposition, allow the media and civil society to work independently and free from fear, and revise its violent approach to political dissent.

To the opposition:

  1. Renounce violence and, for the unarmed opposition in exile, engage in a constructive dialogue with the government and resolve internal disagreements in order to present a common front and clear positions.

To the UN, African Union (AU), East African Community (EAC) and European Union (EU):

  1. Formalise a single international mediation structure in order to speak with one voice.

To the guarantors of the Arusha accord (in particular Tanzania and South Africa):

  1. Form a working group comprising the National Council for the Restoration of the Arusha Accord and the Rule of Law (Conseil national pour le respect de l’ac­cord d’Arusha pour la paix et la réconciliation au Burundi et de l’Etat de droit, CNARED), the National Forces of Liberation (Forces nationales de libération, FNL), and the CNDD-FDD tasked with discussing the necessary amendments to be made to the Arusha peace agreement.

To the AU and the EU:

  1. Agree on how to implement the EU decision to change the financing arrangements for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) by bypassing the government and disbursing funds directly to the soldiers.
     
  2. The AU and its partners should also look for another troop contributing country to eventually replace Burundian soldiers within AMISOM in order to prevent Burundian authorities from using participation in the mission as diplomatic leverage.

To prevent a descent into ethnic conflict and be ready to intervene in case of mass violence

To donors who suspended part of their financial aid (the EU, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the U.S. and Switzerland):

  1. Contribute financially to track hate speech by the authorities and the opposition in order to fight attempts at ethnic polarisation. Burundian NGOs, with the assistance of some donors, have already begun doing this, but they require further assistance, specifically to cover speeches by local authorities in the provinces. Financial assistance for the documentation of human rights abuses should also be sustained and increased.

To the UN, the AU, the EU and bilateral partners:

  1. The AU should put in place and the EU and the U.S. should expand sanctions regimes to include those propagating hate speech.
     
  2. Agree to deploy immediately several hundred human rights observers and armed international police.
     
  3. Take the necessary measures so that a rapid deployment force can be dispatched in case of emergency, which could include troops from the UN mission in the Democratic Republic of Congo (MONUSCO).

To Burundian and international NGOs involved in local conflict resolution before the current crisis with local mediation structures in place:

  1. Reorient the work of these structures toward the documentation of human rights abuses and hate speech in Bujumbura and in the provinces.

To mitigate the impact of the economic and social crisis on the population

To donors who suspended part of their financial aid (the EU, Belgium, France, Germany, the Netherlands, the U.S. and Switzerland):

  1. Verify the political neutrality and technical reliability of non-governmental actors in the context of changing the terms of aid provision. This requires a rigorous political and operational assessment of these actors. For some of them, a partnership with international NGOs and a strengthening of their financial and managerial capacities will be essential.
     
  2. Fund monitoring mechanisms to evaluate the status of food security and sanitation, and conduct budgetary studies to identify the breaking point of key health and agricultural sectors in order to calibrate the financial support they need. Donors should ensure financing changes to their programs do not result in the interruption of all ongoing funding.
     
  3. Create a committee to monitor the Burundian economy, specifically in the health and agriculture sectors and access to basic services.
     
  4. Make available funds for the humanitarian response plan, which remains under-funded.

Nairobi/Brussels, 20 May 2016

Commentary / Africa

De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes

President Tshisekedi’s plans for joint operations with DR Congo’s belligerent eastern neighbours against its rebels risks regional proxy warfare. In this excerpt from our Watch List 2020 for European policymakers, Crisis Group urges the EU to encourage diplomatic efforts in the region and Tshisekedi to shelve his plan for the joint operations.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2020.

Since assuming office in early 2019, the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) president, Félix Tshisekedi, has stressed his determination to dismantle the dozens of Congolese and foreign armed groups blighting the troubled east of the country. He has also prioritised repairing ties with neighbouring states, which have historically both backed and fought against rebels in the eastern DRC over various cycles of war in the last two decades. Today, tensions are again mounting among the DRC’s neighbours – between Burundi and Uganda, on one hand, and Rwanda, on the other – potentially compounding the country’s security challenges. Alongside Tshisekedi’s diplomatic efforts to calm tensions, he has floated plans to invite these three neighbours to deploy their armed forces into the DRC to conduct joint operations with Congolese forces against rebels. Yet insofar as tensions among those countries remain high, such operations could pave the way for them to step up support to allied groups even while fighting rivals, and thus fuel proxy warfare. Civilians in the eastern DRC are likely to suffer most.

In line with its December Foreign Affairs Council conclusions that lay out the EU’s plans for re-engagement with the DRC, and to help President Tshisekedi de-escalate regional tensions, the EU and its member states should:

  • Reinforce the International Contact Group for the Great Lakes region, an informal gathering comprising the UN (including both the UN’s special envoy to the Great Lakes and the head of its mission in the DRC, MONUSCO), the U.S., the African Union and South Africa, as well as the EU and several European states that are important donors in the region, such as Belgium, the UK, Germany, France, the Netherlands and Sweden. The EU and European governments could designate senior EU and other European ministerial appointees to fill the group, over and above the working-level desk officers who normally tend to participate.
  • Use the increased clout this would bring to push for a mechanism whereby each of the three neighbours airs allegations against states they believe are backing armed groups in the DRC and supports the charges with evidence. Allegations can then be investigated by the UN Group of Experts and the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region (the ICGLR comprises regional states and is a guarantor of a 2013 regional peace agreement; its joint verification mechanism and the UN expert group already have mandates to investigate claims of support to armed groups). Their findings could inform diplomatic efforts to de-escalate tensions among neighbours and end their backing of insurgents in the DRC.
  • At the same time, encourage President Tshisekedi to shelve, at least for now, his plan for joint operations with neighbours’ security forces.
  • Offer financial and technical support for the national disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration (DDR) process, to ensure that Congolese militias linked to foreign rebels operating in the eastern DRC have a safe pathway to giving up their fight.

Security Challenges

In recent months, eastern DRC-based foreign insurgencies have escalated attacks on both the Congolese army as well as soldiers and civilians in neighbouring countries. The Burundian, Rwandan and Ugandan presidents are all rattling their sabres in response, accusing one another of proxy warfare.

On 4 October, DRC-based fighters killed fourteen people in Kinigi village in Rwanda’s Musanze district. Rwandan authorities blame the Forces démocratiques de liberation du Rwanda (FDLR) rebels. They say the FDLR is working with another DRC-based rebel group, the Rwanda National Congress (RNC), which they allege is run by one of President Paul Kagame’s former generals. They also say both the FDLR and the RNC enjoy Burundian and Ugandan support. In a speech, Kagame vowed to retaliate against anyone seeking to attack Rwanda.

After the Kinigi killings, fighters crossed into Burundi from the DRC to launch two separate deadly attacks. Burundian RED-Tabara rebels, whom Burundian officials say are backed by Rwanda, claimed the first attack. No one claimed the second, but Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, recalling Kigali’s support for mutineers in a 2015 coup attempt, blamed Rwanda for both attacks, alleging that Kigali supports RED-Tabara. Ugandan officials, for their part, assert that Rwanda is collaborating with the Allied Democratic Forces, a rebel movement with roots in Uganda that is implicated in dozens of massacres in the Beni area of North Kivu since 2014.

Rwandan and Ugandan officials continue to trade accusations that each is plotting to destabilise the other.

Rwandan and Ugandan officials continue to trade accusations that each is plotting to destabilise the other. Both governments have purged their security services of suspected traitors. Rwanda has now also closed a main border crossing into Uganda, suffocating trade between the two countries. Meanwhile, Burundi and Rwanda have dispatched troops to their mutual border while Uganda has deployed troops to its western frontier facing North Kivu. Should these tensions heighten, they could fuel more proxy fighting in the eastern DRC, further threatening regional stability.

Recognising the dangers, Tshisekedi invited Rwanda and Uganda for talks in July and August hosted by Angolan President João Lourenço in the Angolan capital Luanda. They culminated in a memorandum of understanding, signed on 21 August, in which both countries promised to halt “actions conducive to destabilisation or subversion in the territory of the other party and neighbouring countries”. In addition to these diplomatic efforts, the DRC president floated plans that would involve the armed forces of Burundi, Rwanda and Uganda conducting joint military operations with Congolese forces against insurgents in the eastern DRC. Absent political de-escalation among the neighbour governments, such operations could pave the way for all three to ratchet up support to proxies opposing their respective rivals. The eastern DRC could again become the arena for a multi-sided melee.

Calming Regional Tensions

In its latest Foreign Affairs Council Conclusions on the DRC in December 2019, the EU asserted its readiness to redefine its relationship with the country. This comes after relations between Brussels and Kinshasa cooled at the tail end of Kabila’s presidency, when the EU sanctioned some of his top henchmen in late 2018. President Tshisekedi has expressed an increasing willingness to work with Brussels even as the EU renewed sanctions in December 2019 against twelve of the fourteen Kabila-era officials. In particular, the EU could help de-escalate regional tensions and lessen neighbours’ support to foreign armed groups while contributing to pathways to surrender for Congolese fighters allied to such groups.

The immediate priority is to encourage President Tshisekedi to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to calm tensions among DRC’s neighbours.

The immediate priority is to encourage President Tshisekedi to reinvigorate diplomatic efforts to calm tensions among DRC’s neighbours while putting aside, at least for now, plans for those neighbours to conduct military operations in the eastern DRC. The EU’s best bet for pressing for an approach along these lines would be to increase its influence in the International Contact Group for the Great Lakes, the informal group to which it and a number of European states belong. Brussels and other European capitals should commit more senior officials both to the contact group itself and to liaising with the group and with regional governments. Together with the UN special envoy to the Great Lakes, Xia Huang, who has recently been instrumental in bringing together the Burundian, Congolese, Rwandan and Ugandan intelligence chiefs to discuss their deteriorating relations, the EU should use its weight in the group to prioritise the need for a political solution to tackling foreign armed groups in the eastern DRC.

Such a solution could entail Xia encouraging the three states to lay out their allegations and evidence of support by their rivals to armed groups in the DRC. He could share all information received with the UN Group of Experts and the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism of the International Conference of the Great Lakes Region. The evidence provided by regional states, and investigations conducted by the expert group and joint verification mechanism, could collectively inform diplomatic efforts to halt or diminish support to DRC-based insurgents.

By financially and technically supporting the national DDR process, the EU can also back Tshisekedi’s priority of tackling the plague of Congolese armed groups. Congolese insurgents, many of whom are sucked into alliances with more powerful foreign armed groups, often lack an alternative in the absence of a fully funded DDR program. Under Kabila, the Congolese authorities gave only limited resources to DDR. Several donors pulled out, frustrated by Kinshasa’s lack of commitment to funding a national program. Despite the uptick in attacks in the east, there are signs that some fighters are placing greater hope in Tshisekedi’s presidency and expressing greater desire to surrender. MONUSCO’s new mandate, adopted at the end of December 2019, encourages the DRC’s government to appoint a senior coordinator to lead the DDR effort. The EU could consider supplying this person with the necessary funding and expertise to carry out the mandate.