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De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
Report 2 / Africa

Burundi Under Siege

Burundi has spent the most part of the past five years embroiled in a vicious civil war that has so far claimed more than 200,000 lives and triggered massive movements of refugees and displaced persons and which continues to add to instability throughout the Great Lakes region.

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Executive Summary

Burundi has spent the most part of the past five years embroiled in a vicious civil war that has so far claimed more than 200,000 lives and triggered massive movements of refugees and displaced persons and which continues to add to instability throughout the Great Lakes region.  Since July 1996, the country has been largely cut off from the outside world, following the decision by neighbouring countries in the region to impose harsh economic sanctions in response to the overthrow of Burundi’s coalition government by the Tutsi-dominated military.

The swift response of regional leaders to the Burundi coup in July 1996 and their show of resolve to force the military government, led by Major Pierre Buyoya, to restore multiparty democracy and enter into all-party talks on the future of the country is undeniably impressive.  Meeting within five days of the military’s seizure of power, the leaders of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Zaire and Ethiopia agreed to impose uniform sanctions on Burundi, issued a list of specific demands that the Burundian government would have to meet for the sanctions to be lifted and gave their full backing to former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere’s efforts to mediate a settlement to the crisis.

The wider international community, including the United States and key European states, greeted the efforts of regional leaders to impose a solution on Burundi through a combination of economic pressure and negotiations with barely disguised relief.  Western governments, still haunted by their failure to do more to prevent the Rwanda genocide of 1994 in which almost a million people lost their lives, lent strong political and financial support to the regional leaders and, specifically, to former president Nyerere as the regional peace-broker.  At the time, the speed and unity of the regional response to events in the Burundian capital, Bujumbura, seemed to auger well for the future.  It became common to hear US and European politicians arguing that the determination of leaders in the Great Lakes region to impose a peace process on Burundi was evidence that Africans were increasingly taking on responsibility for solving their own problems.

20 months on, the situation remains far from resolved.  While the swift response of regional leaders to the coup in Burundi undoubtedly had an immediate and positive impact on the political situation inside Burundi – leading within weeks to a lifting of the ban on political parties and the restoration of the country’s Parliament – the main objectives of regional and international policy have yet to be achieved.  Burundi’s military government remains in place; violence continues, albeit at a lower rate than before the coup; and while there is evidence of a limited rapprochement between key parties within Burundi, including between the Government and the Parliament, genuine peace talks have yet to begin.  Meanwhile, Nyerere’s regional peace process remains at a standstill against a backdrop of mutual recriminations and allegations that the mediator’s neutrality has been compromised by his support for punitive sanctions on Burundi.  The embargo, originally intended as a regional policy, has evolved into a personal feud between the former Tanzanian president and the president of Uganda on the one hand and Buyoya on the other.  As hopes of a breakthrough fade, Burundi’s neighbours have become increasingly divided on what measures to take to break the deadlock.

The present report, compiled by an ICG field analyst based in Bujumbura, provides an assessment of the current situation in Burundi and the region.  In particular it examines the key changes during the 20 months since the 1996 coup.  It  weighs up the performance of the Buyoya military government in restoring security and opening up dialogue between Burundi’s factions and looks in detail at the impact of the economic embargo on the peace process, both within the country and in the region.

The report catalogues a number of serious obstacles that reduce the Burundi government’s room for manoeuvre and limit the chances of progress towards productive all-party negotiations on the country’s future.  These include:

  • a radicalisation of some elements of the army and Tutsi community who fear pressure from the region may force the government into making concessions that compromise the security of the Tutsi minority;
  • fragmentation of the government’s political base, with deep divisions within the Tutsi-dominated UPRONA party
  • splits in the opposition, within the Hutu-dominated FRODEBU party and between the political opposition parties and armed elements;
  • the threat of an active rebellion, and
  • a crisis of confidence in the country’s judicial system, making it impossible for those guilty of past atrocities to be tried and the culture of impunity to be tackled.

The report criticises the refusal of regional leaders not to consider changing tack in the face of mounting evidence that their emphasis on economic sanctions as a means of forcing Burundi’s parties into an open, regionally-brokered peace process has failed to deliver the desired results.  As the report points out, the sanctions policy has:

  • not removed the president from power;
  • made Burundi’s poor poorer – by inflicting widespread human suffering and economic squalor on the most vulnerable and deprived sections of Burundian society; and made the rich richer – by creating opportunities for extortion rackets, corruption and highly-profitable black market economic activities;
  • failed to exert significant economic hardship on members and supporters of the government and the military, who can by and large afford inflated prices;
  • not strangled the Burundian economy which still functions, albeit unreliably, by virtue of illegal smuggling, corruption and a thriving black market;
  • narrowed Buyoya’s political base, marginalising moderates and radicalising certain elements within the army and the minority Tutsi community by adding to their sense of persecution and vulnerability;
  • undermined the regional peace process by seriously damaging the relationship between Burundi and the other countries of the region;
  • made compromise less not more likely by forcing the Burundi government to choose between caving into regional demands, and therefore losing all face, or standing firm and handling the crisis internally (a winner/loser scenario); and
  • shifted the focus of peace-making efforts away from the content of negotiations and instead onto the nature of the negotiating process – tying the lifting of the embargo to the start of a regionally-led external peace process.

Bujumbura/ Burundi, 28 April 1998

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.