icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Whatsapp Youtube
Burundi: How to Deconstruct Peace
Burundi: How to Deconstruct Peace
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
Op-Ed / Africa

Burundi: How to Deconstruct Peace

Originally published in IPI Global Observatory

Burundi is back in the spotlight of the world’s media and the agenda of the United Nations Security Council. As recently as two years ago, the country was considered a success story in peacebuilding circles, but now the news is firmly of a negative variety. The UN is trying to prevent a new civil war in a region still haunted by the Rwandan genocide. How did success so quickly turn to failure?

Following the re-election of President Nkurunziza for a contentious third term in July this year, the Burundian crisis has itself entered a third phase. The first was the 2014 dispute around electoral preparations. The government and opposition disagreed on almost everything, from the composition of the local electoral commissions to the registration of voters, stripping it of legitimacy from the start.

The second phase involved street protests against Nkurunziza’s pursuit of the presidency in April this year. Demonstrations in the capital Bujumbura quickly turned violent, with confrontations between the government and a coalition of political opposition, civil society organizations, and the Catholic Church. A failed coup radicalized all stakeholders, and international mediation attempts in June and July only managed to delay elections without substantially improving the conditions in which they would be held.

The third phase of the crisis—armed confrontation—corresponded with the third-term mandate granted to Nkurunziza. Nightly police raids and execution-style operations in districts of Bujumbura hosting the regime’s opponents have led to daily disappearances and discoveries of dead bodies.

There is now a dictatorial atmosphere within the country: the opposition and most civil society leaders are in exile; international non-government organizations are under surveillance; independent media have been shut down, withabout 100 Burundian journalists—most of the profession—leaving the country; and the government is reviving rhetoric from the civil war of 1993-2005. Meanwhile, isolation is growing: most international donors have suspended aid programs and the largest among them, the European Union, is looking to follow suit. The United States, EU, and African Union have implemented targeted sanctions, while relations with Rwanda and Belgium have also been strained.

Currently, both the president and the population are living in fear. Concerned about assassination, Nkurunziza is no longer residing in Bujumbura, nor his hometown of Ngozi, and the Burundian people are scared to speak freely or leave home after dark. This fear is driving many from the country: according to the UN’s refugee agency, about 215,000 have fled in eight months. A national crisis has become a regional one, and Burundi may soon be facing a protracted civil war, or at the very least a new coup attempt. A genocide-in-the making is the worst-case scenario, although this ignores the fact that the opposition to the president is multiethnic.

After Arusha: Lack of Support Dooms Agreement

The growing conflict could reduce what was a long and hard-fought peacebuilding effort to nothing. It took two African presidents—Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela—and four years to negotiate the Arusha peace agreement that ended Burundi’s civil war; it took eight to convince all armed groups to lay down their weapons and accept a democratic political system. Burundi has remained on the UN peacebuilding commission agenda throughout this process, so how could things have again reached this stage?

To begin with, challenging term limits is highly dangerous in post-conflict settings, especially amid a long dispute between the ruling party and opposition. The present crisis therefore has roots in the 2010 polls, which were a logistical success but a political failure. The opposition only participated in the communal elections and boycotted the others, and the government launched a repressive post-electoral campaign that forced its main opponents out of the country. Against this backdrop, the ambiguous legality of Nkurunziza’s candidacy sparked a concerned political opposition to turn to the streets.

In truth, the success of Burundi’s peaceful transition was overstated to begin with. The implementation of the Arusha agreement was both unfinished and undesired by the government. The ruling party never genuinely adhered to its principles and had not been part of the negotiations process to begin with. It even blocked the implementation of several conditions, including, most prominently, those related to the creation of a special tribunal to judge the crimes of the civil war. Consequently, nobody has answered for these and Burundi has failed to move past them.

In addition, foreign observers considered the peaceful integration of militiamen into state security services proof of unity and the depoliticization of the security sector. But integration did not equal unity: parallel chains of command were established in order to discreetly shift the balance of power and maintain political and ethnic control over it. The transformation of leaders of the armed groups into elected politicians has not entrenched democratic values, nor good governance. These individuals quickly became corrupt and failed to improve the living conditions of the population, especially the urban youth who mobilized against Nkurunziza this year.

The countries and organizations that guarantee the Arusha agreement paid little attention to these developments. They were complacent with the post-conflict regime despite its rising corruption, poor human rights record, and authoritarian behavior. They turned a blind eye to these dangerous patterns and continued to promote the narrative of success that was convenient for all stakeholders; it pleased the Burundian government and justified the political disengagement of others.

The guarantors thus ignored all early warning signs and sometimes even sent the wrong signals to the government. Most notably, the EU doubled its development assistance to Burundi in 2014, despite bilateral dialogue not making any progress and electoral preparations already being problematic at the time. The UN Security Council also accepted a reduced political role in Burundi when the electoral dispute was already developing.

These failures have been compounded by a politically inadequate response to the current crisis. As the civil war was ended by an agreement negotiated by African leaders, Western interests have again waited for a regional solution. Unfortunately, times have changed: South Africa has disengaged from Burundi and its present government seems disinterested in preserving Mandela’s legacy. The East African Community (EAC) has been mandated to find a solution but is too divided and ill-equipped to deal with political crisis. In addition, too many national leaders within EAC feel some affinity with the Burundian regime; its chief mediator, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, is himself facing a potential electoral crisis in early 2016.

The return of authoritarian and corrupt governance to Burundi has been made possible because the guarantors of the Arusha agreement did not follow through on their commitments. They ignored early warnings about the return of authoritarian governance and that peace was beginning to unravel. Peacebuilding requires a long-term political engagement to have any degree of success. This is something that those seeking an end to the current Burundian crisis must bear in mind if they are to achieve more than a brief interruption of the country’s fighting and instability.

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.