Get Moving Now to Prevent Genocide in Burundi
Get Moving Now to Prevent Genocide in Burundi
Watch List 2021 – Autumn Update
Watch List 2021 – Autumn Update
Op-Ed / Africa

Get Moving Now to Prevent Genocide in Burundi

When Nelson Mandela at last coaxed a political settlement out of the Tutsi and Hutu parties in Burundi last month, a collective sigh of relief reached all the way to New York. Wracked by conflict since 1993, Burundi is a country where an explosion of communal violence on the scale of the genocidal horror in next door neighbor Rwanda has long been feared.

But none of the key UN players - they will privately admit - has been prepared to contemplate protective intervention in Burundi, any more than they were willing to act in Rwanda in 1994. Maybe now the whole problem would just go away.

But it is much too early to be complacent. The possibility of catastrophe is still real, not only because the political transition has still to be consolidated on the ground but, crucially, because the armed Hutu rebel groups remain outside the process. The Security Council has some important decisions to make when it meets on the issue this Friday, and international donors who have pledged but not yet delivered financial assistance need to get their act together fast.

The Mandela agreement is certainly good news. It resolves the political transition issue which has plagued implementation of the Arusha agreement signed last year in the presence of then President Bill Clinton. The deal is for President Pierre Buyoya to remain in his post for the first half of the three-year transition period, due to begin on Nov. 1, while a representative of the Hutu parties will become president for the second half. Mr. Buyoya himself is now campaigning for changes that will see him out of office in May 2003.

But there remains a big obstacle to Mr. Mandela's continuing peacemaking efforts. Without the involvement of the armed Hutu rebel groups there is no cease-fire, and there is risk of mass violence and the widening of a war that has already cost more than 200,000 lives. Central Africa's stability and the fate of a million refugees and internally displaced persons are the stakes.

The rebels have legitimate grievances that have not been resolved in the Arusha negotiations, including reform of the army and security services. Mr. Mandela's facilitation team should urgently open an office in Bujumbura and review its strategy for cease-fire negotiations. The consultations so far held in Pretoria look dangerously cut off from realities on the ground. If the implementation of Arusha goes too far without the rebels, peace in Burundi will remain a distant dream.

A major international mobilization is urgently needed, first to strengthen the transition's credibility and second to help construct meaningful cease-fire negotiations. Trust in Burundi's immediate future must still be built, and momentum created for the Arusha agreement's implementation.

The governments of the Congo, Zimbabwe and Tanzania are the keys to getting the rebels to the negotiating table. The first two have armed and trained the rebels. The third hosts refugee camps that are havens and staging areas for incursions into Burundi. Pressure must be applied to the Congo and Zimbabwe to cut off support for the rebels. Tanzania needs financial and technical help to increase its capacity to control cross-border activities.

Further international action is also necessary to support the peace process inside Burundi. The UN Security Council must warn all extremists, Hutu and Tutsi alike, that attempts to undermine the Arusha agreement will not be tolerated. Two coup attempts in Bujumbura in four months are enough. Next time the culprits should be treated as international war criminals and their foreign assets frozen.

The Security Council should immediately begin securing standby arrangements with troop contributors for the deployment of a peacekeeping monitoring force within 30 days of a cease-fire signing. This would send a clear signal that the international community is actively behind the peace process.

The UN and key donors should also move to support the training and deployment of the special half-Tutsi, half-Hutu security force negotiated by Mr. Mandela, to be trained by South Africans and devoted to protecting transition institutions and the safety of the exiled political leaders who return to Burundi. The further critical element in the equation is money. A substantial portion of the $440 million that the international community pledged at the Paris donors' conference eight months ago must become a reality. Early emphasis should go toward facilitating repatriation and resettlement of refugees and internally displaced persons.

Rapid injection of hard currency is also necessary to jump-start Burundi's economy and create confidence in the transition government. Nothing could be more meaningful than lower prices for food and other essential.

Time and money are short. Burundi's donors now have less than 100 days to Nov. 1 to mobilize at least $100 million - and begin spending it - so as to restore confidence in the future of this traumatized country. A commitment of this size will bring hope, even with gunshots still heard in the hills around the capital.

It is a cheap price to pay when the alternative is all too likely to be another massive humanitarian catastrophe.

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