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Insights from the Burundian Crisis (I): An Army Divided and Losing its Way
Insights from the Burundian Crisis (I): An Army Divided and Losing its Way
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
Soldiers, who are escorting Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza, hold their weapons in Bujumbura, Burundi, on 17 May 2015. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
Commentary / Africa

Insights from the Burundian Crisis (I): An Army Divided and Losing its Way

On the morning of 11 September, Burundian army Chief of Staff Prime Niyongabo escaped an assassination attempt in the south of the country. Three servicemen in his escort weren’t so lucky and were killed. One month earlier, another high-ranking officer, head of the intelligence services General Adolphe Nshimirimana, was shot dead in broad daylight in the capital Bujumbura.

Despite the silencing of independent media and the resulting information blackout, many Burundians believe other military officers are behind these attacks. Only military personnel would have access to the information and weapons required to ambush high-ranking officers. The arrests of military personnel that followed appeared to confirm this suspicion.

Not long ago, Burundi’s army was considered the greatest success of the 2000 Arusha peace accords, which brought a gradual end to a civil war that began in 1993. Today, the army is nearing its breaking point. Its silence since President Nkurunziza’s re-election in July contrasts starkly with the increase in violence in the country and with the army’s internal divisions.

Integrated but not United

A key point of the Arusha accords was the army’s composition. Burundi has a long tradition of military regimes: Successive presidents between 1966 and 1993 (Captain Micombero, Colonel Bagaza and Major Buyoya) all came to power through coups and the army was the primary centre of power. Its internal make-up was thus of great strategic significance for parties negotiating peace in Arusha. That is why Arusha stipulates that the army should no longer play a political role but instead unite former enemies: it should be composed equally of the country’s two main ethnic groups, meaning soldiers of the former regime, the ex-Armed forces of Burundi (ex-FAB), which are predominantly Tutsi, and militiamen of the majority Hutu armed groups that had been fighting against the Tutsi-led regimes.

The successful integration of former rebels into the armed forces was partly an achievement of the international community, which supervised the process, and the commitments of South Africa and other guarantors of the Arusha agreement, such as the UN, the African Union (AU), Belgium, France, and others. Precisely because former opposition fighters of the Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), the National Forces of Liberation (FNL) could be integrated peacefully, the army became a symbol of the Arusha compromise. The local population as well as the international community began to perceive it as an apolitical force for stability. As a result, the army won support from various international partners, including the U.S., France and the Netherlands, and took on an active role in AU and UN peacekeeping missions.

However, during CNDD-FDD member President Nkurunziza’s second term between 2010 and 2015, the army’s supposed unity and apolitical nature was perhaps already overestimated. In fact, while its participation in the African Union’s 2007 operation in Somalia appeared to reinforce cohesion, differences and political affiliations dating from the civil war persisted. For example, the CNDD-FDD dominated government continued to favour the former CNDD-FDD fighters for training opportunities abroad or deployment in peacekeeping missions. Officers had their own terms to differentiate members of the old guard from those of the armed groups: the first being the ex-FAB (mostly Tutsi) and the second PMPA (Parties and Armed Political Movements, mostly Hutu), comprising members of former rebel factions like the CNDD-FDD. Systems of dual command based on partisan affiliations were also not unheard of. The army was perhaps an integrated institution, but it was not a united one.

From an Electoral Crisis to an Army in Crisis

When the electoral crisis started in April and people took to the streets to protest against President Nkurunziza’s candidacy every day, unease grew within the army. Officers intervened several times in April and May between police and demonstrators. These attempts to lower tensions, while seemingly positive, resulted in at least two lethal “incidents” between police and soldiers, killing two soldiers and heightening tensions between the two security institutions. The army itself has diverging views on how to respond to the street protests: for some, the army’s apolitical stance precludes it from getting involved in what it perceives as a “political struggle”; for others, the army should prevent these protests from challenging the government in power.

The failed 13 May coup attempt, organised by General Niyombaré from the CNDD-FDD while the president was attending an East Africa Community summit in Tanzania, changed the situation.

Unease turned into fear. Because it exposed a disloyal faction within the army’s high command, the coup attempt has been followed to a quiet repression. Officers of the Para commando camp and the logistic Brigade, commonly called Base, have been kidnapped by agents of police and the national intelligence service SNR under suspicion of planning another coup. Some have come back, others have not. Some officers have even deserted – the latest ones are the Lieutenant Colonel Edouard Nshimirimana and Major Ndayikeza, deputy commander of the Muha camp.

Shortly after the failed coup, then minister of defence, ex-FAB Major General Pontien Gaciyubwenge, took refuge in Belgium, effectively ending the unofficial arrangement that the defence minister and chief of staff each represent a faction of the army (ex-FAB and PMPA). The new Minister of Defence Emmanuel Ntahomvukiye called for unity within the army as soon as he took office, but is not from the ex-FAB military old guard. In addition to this shift in the political balance within the military hierarchy, officers serving in peacekeeping operations are experiencing wage arrears.

Hunting Down the Plotters?

As attacks against military posts by unidentified armed persons have continued since July, with one attack targeting the presidential palace at the end of September, the government has implemented anti-coup measures targeting the ex-FAB. It removed some Tutsi officers from their command posts and appointed them to remote units. Officers of the former FNL rebellion were not spared. According to some sources, several Tutsi soldiers in the special Brigade of protection of institutions (BSPI) were replaced by colleagues from the CNDD-FDD.

According to a credible source, “Burundian peacekeepers returning from the [UN] peacekeeping mission in the Central African Republic left all their weapons to their replacements. Once in Bujumbura, ex-FAB soldiers were given a rifle with a single full magazine. But PMPA members were given a rifle with two or three full magazines, which shocked the ex-FAB”. Military officers have not escaped increasingly frequent, but selective, police searches, the source said: “When policemen arrive at an officer’s house, they ask if he is a PMPA or an ex-FAB. If he is a PMPA, they do not enter or they enter and pretend to search. But if he is an ex-FAB, they search everywhere, even under the mattress or in the ceiling”.

As Nkurunziza’s third mandate begins, every new desertion and every new murder is exacerbating the rift between the regime and the army. The regime is suspicious of the army and the army is suspicious of the regime. In the Burundian political and security equation, the army today is an increasingly unknown quantity. Its growing dissatisfaction means more desertions, more violence and undoubtedly more coup attempts.

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.