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De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
Report 155 / Africa

Burundi: Ensuring Credible Elections

Burundi’s escape from its long civil war can only be solidified if all political forces, including government, opposition parties, civil society and media ensure that this year’s series of elections is truly democratic. The International Crisis Group examines the rise in tensions before communal, presidential and legislative elections.

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Executive Summary

Burundi has made much progress in leaving its civil war behind, but tensions are rising ahead of elections. They could escalate dangerously in coming months, ruining the electoral process’s credibility and endangering a fragile democracy and, ultimately, many gains of the peace process. After strong international pressure was put on the ruling party, consensus was reached in September 2009 on an Independent National Electoral Commission (CENI) and a new electoral code. The polls – communal, presidential, then legislative – are scheduled between May and September, but opposition parties are facing harassment and intimidation from police and the ruling party’s youth wing and appear to be choosing to respond to violence with violence. Both the region and Burundi’s other partners should reinforce election violence monitoring mechanisms and support deployment of a regional police mission. A senior regional envoy should be appointed to facilitate resolution of political disputes and party leaders warned they face sanctions if they rig elections and possible international prosecution if they commit serious violent crimes.

Although an electoral framework endorsed by the majority of the political class is in place, opposition parties still cannot operate freely. In many parts of the country, local administrations are controlled by the ruling Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie – Forces de défense de la démocratie (CNDD-FDD). These local administrations order the police to disrupt opposition party gatherings and block them from opening local offices. At the same time, civil society organisations and some media are harassed for denouncing the ruling party’s authoritarian tendencies.

The CNDD-FDD youth wing’s physical training, war songs and quasi-military organisation raise the spectre of militia violence and a large-scale intimidation campaign. The other former rebels, the Forces nationales de libération (FNL) and the Front pour la démocratie au Burundi (FRODEBU) are mobilising their own youth wings to oppose intimidation tactics. The police have remained passive or become accomplices to the ruling party’s abuses. There are thus legitimate fears they could become further politicised, similar to the National Intelligence Service (Service national de renseignement), which is already trying to destabilise the opposition. Meanwhile, the main opposition political parties’ election strategies either have yet to be worked out or, apart from those of a few new players, fail to offer an alternative political vision. Most parties simply criticise CNDD-FDD leaders by denouncing suspected corruption and authoritarian practices.

Given President Nkurunziza’s popularity in rural areas and the financial and logistical advantages it derives from control of state institutions, the CNDD-FDD is in a strong position to retain the presidency. It seems to fear, however, that it could lose its majority in parliament and dominance over provincial administrations and thus be forced to form a coalition government, a scenario which party hardliners, notably military leaders, strongly wish to avoid. This prospect and the harassment of opposition parties suggest it intends to win the local and parliamentary elections at all costs.

While the present problems do not make a return to civil war likely, Burundi’s regional and wider international partners need to urgently support policies that limit the real risk of serious election violence that would plunge it into a new political crisis and endanger much of the recent progress. Civil society organisations should support creation of efficient electoral violence observation mechanisms, and the media should document and report incidents. The countries in the regional initiative on Burundi (Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda in particular) should boost efforts to improve the training and operations of the national police by providing a regional police mission. Embedded within the Burundian force, a few small teams in each province equipped by donors with their own logistics and communications could support the planning of election security as well as advise on and monitor implementation.

This regional police mission should be led by a commissioner working directly with the director general of the Burundian police and report to a senior regional special envoy mandated by the regional initiative and the African Union to help resolve major political disputes arising from serious security incidents and allegations of electoral malpractice. The special envoy would also coordinate international engagement, which has weakened since the dissolution of the partnership for peace on Burundi and the expulsion of the Special Representative of the UN Secretary-General at the end of 2009. A retired head of state from the region familiar with Burundian politics and respected by all parties would be well suited for this role.

Nairobi/Brussels, 12 February 2010

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.