Insights from the Burundian Crisis (III): Back to Arusha and the Politics of Dialogue
Insights from the Burundian Crisis (III): Back to Arusha and the Politics of Dialogue
Watch List 2021 – Autumn Update
Watch List 2021 – Autumn Update
Burundian refugees gather on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Kigoma region in western Tanzania on 17 May 2015. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
Burundian refugees gather on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Kigoma region in western Tanzania on 17 May 2015. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
Commentary / Africa 7 minutes

Insights from the Burundian Crisis (III): Back to Arusha and the Politics of Dialogue

When Burundians, and international mediators, finally meet in Arusha, they must remember the lessons of the last hard-won peace process more than a decade ago. The root causes of conflict in Burundi are political, not ethnic, and cannot be resolved by force. Compromise will be necessary, since neither the government nor the opposition have the means to win a definitive victory. Pursuing maximalist positions will only mean more hardship and bloodshed, which will further erode the real progress in reconciliation made since 2000. Genuine dialogue, addressing not only immediate problems but also fundamental political differences is needed to resolve the current crisis and chart a peaceful future for the country.

On 28 August 2000, Burundian political parties signed the “Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi” (the Arusha Agreement) under the eyes of the late South African President Nelson Mandela, the agreement’s facilitator, although the civil war was still ripping the country apart.

The agreement was not really a peace agreement: it was a deal between the government and political parties, and it urged armed groups, which did not initially sign it, to suspend hostilities and negotiate a ceasefire. It was a manifesto for a possible return to peace, including long passages on how to re-organise the security forces, which had been responsible for much of the violence in the 1990s. It included a commitment to tackle the conflict’s root causes, which the agreement presciently noted were “fundamentally political” and “stem from a struggle by the political class to accede to and/or remain in power”.

Most of all, it read like a constitution, laying out the founding principles of what was hoped to be a fresh start: justice, reconciliation, fundamental rights and freedoms, national development and the organisation of the country’s political institutions based on power sharing between Hutu and Tutsi. Espousing the principles of consensual democracy, it indeed became the basis of a new constitution in 2005.

Undermining Arusha

One insurgent group not in Arusha in 2000 was Pierre Nkurunziza’s National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD). Locked in a bloody struggle with the Tutsi dominated armed forces, and with rival Hutu armed groups, the CNDD-FDD continued to fight for another three years before signing up to the agreement, grudgingly, in 2003. Imbued with a sense of entitlement from their long struggle in the bush, the CNDD-FDD have consistently criticised the agreement they themselves accepted when leaving the bush and the armed struggle. Comfortably elected as the ruling party in 2005 and again in 2010 – this time helped by an opposition boycott – they started, gradually at first, to chip away at the letter and spirit of the agreement: undermining political pluralism and basic freedoms as well as reducing the institutions provided for in the constitution to a shadow role as they ran the country for the narrow interests of a small ruling clique.

Within the broad principles of the agreement and the constitution are two major elements, both intended to balance the belligerent parties’ interests and thereby reduce the chances of future conflict. Firstly, a system of quotas and power sharing guarantee the minority Tutsi group (which accounts for 15 per cent of the population) representation in the armed forces, parliament and other national institutions: a 50/50 ratio in the armed forces and a 60/40 Hutu/Tutsi ratio elsewhere. In short, the agreement and constitution provide a form of protection to preserve the physical and intellectual capital of the minority group and guard against majority domination – inspired in large part by South Africa’s transition out of apartheid. Secondly, the constitution limits the president to two terms in office. This provision, as elsewhere in Africa, was intended to signal that power could be rotated between different political groups and that incumbents would not be able to build systems of authoritarian government allowing them to stay in power indefinitely.

President Nkurunziza’s decision in 2015 to seek a third term as president was therefore read by many as a sign of his ultimate intent to bury the agreement. This sparked off a double crisis. On one hand by breaking with the balancing act of Arusha he antagonised a large part of his own movement, contributing to a coup attempt in May last year and the departure into exile of many former political allies and comrades in arms. On the other, anger was not confined to the CNDD-FDD. Already driven to the wall by a declining economy, in part due to government corruption, and the ruling party’s stranglehold on the remaining commercial and employment opportunities, Bujumbura’s youth, of both ethnic groups, expressed their anger on the street. They were met with a brutal police reaction.

In the year that has followed, street-level violence in Bujumbura has diminished, but all other crisis indicators have deteriorated: over a quarter of a million people have fled, mostly to neighbouring Tanzania, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, including many members of the Burundian intellectual elite; targeted assassinations and disappearances continue, with victims on both sides of the political divide; and violence has spread to the provinces. The government has simply continued its project of dismantling the spirit of the agreement through a closely-controlled “national dialogue” in which people are put forward to call for an end to presidential term limits and ethnic quotas, all in the name of majoritarian democracy. The core of the problem is therefore political, as the writers of the Arusha Agreement noted, and flows from Nkurunziza’s desire to overturn any limit to his power.

Former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa convened talks between the parties at the end of May 2016 in Arusha, where the peace agreement was signed in 2000. These largely failed, as the Burundian government used its control of the East African Community secretariat, which is currently led by a Burundian and that supports Mkapa’s mediation, to ensure that the main exiled opposition platform CNARED (Conseil National pour le respect de l’Accord d’Arusha et de l’Etat de Droit) was not invited as a group; instead the opposition arrived in a trickle and too late to engage in any real discussion. Nor was the agenda clear. A further round was scheduled for the start of July, but has been put off to allow more time for preparations. Having engaged in shuttle diplomacy with the parties, Mkapa should be in a better position to understand their points of view and get the right attendance, including from CNARED, which needs to attend as a single body.

However, even if the attendance is fine-tuned, the conditions will be far from optimal. Both sides are camped on maximalist positions. The government, reeling from the withdrawal of international financial support but for now seemingly oblivious to the clouds darkening over its economy, thinks it has the situation under control and is portraying the opposition as coup plotters. The opposition still wants Nkurunziza to leave power now, and sees no advantage in climbing down from that position. In addition, much blood has already been spilt and mistrust and the desire for revenge colour the views of all parties. These are serious problems, but they should not discourage Mkapa from his efforts.

As in the 1990s, the 2016 talks have to address the most obvious and pressing challenges: an end to violence and hate speech, which is aggravating ethnic polarisation; disarmament of militia, particularly the CNDD-FDD’s Imbonerakure, which acts as a parallel police force controlling rural areas, is deployed along the border with Rwanda and Tanzania and supports the security forces as a back-up force for repression in the capital; greater freedom of expression and assembly; and creating the right conditions for refugees to return. Incremental confidence-building measures are needed and guarantees extracted from the Burundian government.

Rebuilding Arusha

But in a context where the government is dismantling the foundations of the country’s post-civil war settlement, talks cannot succeed unless they address the fundamental issue: what future for the Arusha agreement? Should it continue to be the foundation of the country’s political institutions, and if so with which modifications? The position of some in the opposition that the agreement is untouchable and not up for discussion risks playing into the hands of those who want to dismantle it by keeping it off the agenda. Faced with the current crisis the best way to preserve the undoubted gains made is to openly discuss the advantages and flaws of the Arusha system, and allow those unhappy with it to express their point of view. Such a discussion will provide a clear assessment of the peacebuilding process since 2000 and this assessment should be the basis for charting Burundi’s future.

The other reason to talk about “Arusha in Arusha” is the return of ethnic rhetoric. While most Burundians thought they had turned the page of ethnic politics, it is in fact making a return. The ruling party is playing dangerously with ethnicity, suggesting the coup and subsequent violence in 2015 is a Tutsi plot (backed by Tutsi-dominated Rwanda) and trying to scapegoat the Tutsi community to better rally the Hutus to its cause, eating away at the country’s hard won ethnic solidarity.

There is a further reason that the Arusha agreement needs to be on the table. In 2000, African countries supported the peace talks and those on the continent with the highest moral authority applied themselves to the task, including former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere and, after Nyerere’s death, Nelson Mandela. Crucially, the agreement called on their countries to act as witnesses to the commitments made by the signatories. Among the witnesses was Benjamin Mkapa, then president of Tanzania. He has understood the historic responsibilities that entailed. But the individuals, countries (Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania and South Africa) and organisations (the African Union and the UN) that bore witness to the Burundian people’s desire to find ways of living peacefully together are today reluctant to put their full weight behind him, partly as they are tied up with their own domestic issues, partly because they do not feel that violence has reached a point to justify strong action against an incumbent regime. This passivity is dangerous, and the U.S., the EU and regional leaders should back Mkapa more strongly, and ensure that those in power in Bujumbura are not permitted to dismantle the legacy of Arusha.

Subscribe to Crisis Group’s Email Updates

Receive the best source of conflict analysis right in your inbox.