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De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
People walk in a street in Bujumbura, Burundi, 14 May 2015. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
Commentary / Africa

Burundi’s Crisis Not over Yet

Crisis Group Central Africa Project Director Thierry Vircoulon updates the unfolding developments in Burundi.

A 13 May 2015 coup attempt in Burundi led by Major-General Godefroid Niyombare collapsed after 48 hours. But the fact that key military units remained loyal to President Pierre Nkurunziza has not solved the crisis over his push to win a third five-year term in power. 

Crisis Group: What happened during the 13 May coup attempt? What do you understand about the situation on the ground? 

Thierry Vircoulon: The coup leaders took advantage of the fact that President Nkurunziza had travelled on 13 May to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for a summit of the East African Community (EAC). Ironically, the special meeting had been convened by regional heads of state to discuss the crisis in Burundi after three weeks of street protests in the capital city against Nkurunziza’s candidacy for the next election.

During the coup, there were at first signs of joy in the centre of Bujumbura, with people dancing and fraternising with military forces on the street. But the demonstrators did not take over the city centre, and the coup plotters were unable to rally enough military units behind them. When clashes between army rebels and loyalists started – and the only fighting seems to have been between different parts of the army – people melted away back home. General Niyombare’s rebellion also failed to win over public support from Burundi’s political opposition, even though they share the aim to prevent an unconstitutional third term for President Nkurunziza.

President Nkurunziza was able to return to the country. The coup is over. The coup-makers lost, and some of them have surrendered.

Who was behind the Burundi coup?

The coup was staged by Major General Godefroid Niyombare, a former army chief of staff, a former ambassador to Kenya and a former intelligence service head. General Niyombare is from the ruling party’s security elite who has become dissatisfied with President Nkurunziza’s rule. He is not the only disgruntled general, but is the most visible of them. Niyombare was dismissed by the president in February 2015 after he sent a personal note advising him not to run for a third presidential term. The coup plotters were basically a faction in the security services, mostly very much from within the ruling party’s inner circle.

In his statement justifying the coup, General Godefroid Niyombare claimed to be acting to save the Arusha agreement. Had it really broken down? Why is it important to preserve?

The Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi, signed in 2000, eventually ended a long, ethnically charged civil war in 2005. Nkurunziza and the ruling elite have blocked the implementation of key provisions of the agreement – for instance, a transitional justice process – and have badly managed much needed land reform. They have also created a superficial opposition de façade in order to preserve the appearance of institutionalised power sharing. In fact, they have made no secret of their dislike for the Arusha peace agreement, nor of their intention to amend one of its principal achievements, the constitution. The constitution refers to the Arusha agreement, provides for a two-term limit for the president and makes a two-thirds parliamentary majority compulsory to pass a law. Nkurunziza’s attempt to change the constitution in 2014 failed by only one vote.

The Arusha agreement is widely considered to be the foundation for peace in Burundi. It created the present power-sharing system, which is seen by most Burundians as the best available, able to accommodate the country’s various political interests and making peaceful coexistence possible after a very long civil war that cost 300,000 lives.

What grievances motivate the protestors over the past month?

The demonstrators’ principal grievance – like that of the coup plotters – has been that President Nkurunziza was defying the constitution to run for a third term in the 26 June elections. On Wednesday morning, just before the attempted coup, even the Catholic Church had issued a statement appealing for him to drop this divisive ambition.

The problem is not just political. More than 100,000 Burundians have fled the country, fearing violence if Nkurunziza insists on this course of action. They are worried by increasing authoritarianism that marked the president’s second mandate, by the lack of social services and economic development, as well as by rising corruption.

How do the events of the week fit into the pattern of Burundi’s politics and civilian-military relations?

Burundi’s history has been marked by several bloodless military coups. In 1976, President Jean-Baptiste Bagaza took power in a bloodless coup but was himself the victim of another coup while he was in Canada in 1987. President Pierre Buyoya organised two coups, and after each stayed in power for several years (1987-1993 and 1996-2003).

How is Africa reacting?

Most African countries have waited to see how the situation plays out before offering a formal reaction. However, East African leaders condemned the coup after their 13 May summit. The attempted coup is principally an internal matter, the latest example on the continent of how any attempt by leaders to extend their mandates can trigger large and prolonged popular demonstrations and crises.

What is the danger now?

The Burundi crisis is not over with the failure of the coup. Many Burundians are scared and continue to leave the country as fast as they can.

As for those who supported the coup, the president has said that the soldiers who surrender will be forgiven and this should happen. However, past experience in Burundi raises serious concerns regarding an escalation of repression and the fate of those of who have surrendered.

Theoretically, legislative and municipal elections are scheduled for 26 May and the presidential election for 26 June. The president wishes to organise the elections as soon as possible but attempting to do so will only contribute to worsening the situation. The holding of acceptably free and fair elections is now impossible. The spokesperson of the opposition has called for the resumption of street protests this morning and street barricades have reappeared in the Musaga district of Bujumbura.

What should President Nkurunziza and the international community be saying and doing?

The first priority is to ensure that the aftermath of the coup attempt passes with as little new bloodshed as possible. If international mediators can do so, they should supervise the surrender of the coup-plotters and ensure that they are not executed.

President Nkurunziza should acknowledge that the country is in trouble and unity needs to be restored. He should not press for the elections to happen as long as political conditions for peaceful polls are not in place and the Burundian population does not feel safe. Burundi is not the success story it has been widely depicted as being, and must come to grips with its underlying problems. After this crisis and given the fast flow of refugees, this cannot be business as usual.

To put in place the right political conditions for peaceful elections, a roundtable of the Burundian political actors should be quickly convened. As soon as possible, the UN, the East African Community (EAC), the European Union and the African Union should send their representatives to facilitate the resumption of dialogue between the opposition and the government.

International actors should also demand the release of the many people arrested for taking part in the mounting demonstrations of the past weeks.

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.