icon caret Arrow Down Arrow Left Arrow Right Arrow Up Line Camera icon set icon set Ellipsis icon set Facebook Favorite Globe Hamburger List Mail Map Marker Map Microphone Minus PDF Play Print RSS Search Share Trash Crisiswatch Alerts and Trends Box - 1080/761 Copy Twitter Video Camera  copyview Youtube
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
AU Must Re-engage in Burundi to Push for Inclusivity as a Way out of Violence
AU Must Re-engage in Burundi to Push for Inclusivity as a Way out of Violence
Burundian refugees gather on the shores of Lake Tanganyika in Kigoma region in western Tanzania on 17 May 2015. REUTERS/Thomas Mukoya
Commentary / Africa

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.

Op-Ed / Africa

AU Must Re-engage in Burundi to Push for Inclusivity as a Way out of Violence

Originally published in The East African

The constitutional changes, if passed, could reset the clock on term limits for President Pierre Nkurunziza — potentially giving him an additional 14 years in power — and paving the way for the dismantling of ethnic balances embedded in the 2000 Arusha Agreement, which brought an end to Burundi’s protracted civil war. 

The official results of the Burundi referendum were announced on Monday 21 May. Unsurprisingly, the government's proposed changes were approved. The opposition has refused to recognise the result. In this op ed, published in the East African just after the vote, our Project Director for Central Africa and our African Union Adviser look at the context of this fraught referendum and lay out measures the AU should now take.

Burundi held a referendum on Thursday amid growing violence, and intimidation as the government tried to silence voices opposed to its plan to alter the constitution.

The changes, if passed could reset the clock on term limits for President Pierre Nkurunziza — potentially giving him an additional 14 years in power — and paving the way for the dismantling of ethnic balances embedded in the 2000 Arusha Agreement, which brought an end to Burundi’s protracted civil war.

According to the new Constitution, clauses guaranteeing the minority Tutsi community a 40 or 50 per cent share of posts in some state institutions will be reviewed over the next five years.

In the context of the ruling CNDD-FDD’s increasing authoritarianism, there seems little chance that these assurances would survive such a review.

The African Union (AU), as an Arusha guarantor, has an obligation to uphold the Accord’s central principles. It must re-engage to prevent Burundi sliding back into open conflict ahead of the 2020 elections.

Climate of fear

Since the referendum was announced in December, the government’s political crackdowns, together with local revenge attacks and racketeering, have led to increasing violations of human rights.

The 430,000 refugees in neighbouring countries — the majority of whom fled in 2015 and 2016 due to intimidation of opponents of President Nkurunziza’s third term — show little sign of wanting to come home, despite being pressured by host countries to return.

The security services and the Imbonerakure, the CNDD-FDD’s youth wing, have targeted opposition party members and citizens calling for a no-vote, in particular members of the FNL-Rwasa party, which challenges the CNDD-FDD for the Hutu vote in-country.

Since the referendum was announced in December, the government’s political crackdowns, together with local revenge attacks and racketeering, have led to increasing violations of human rights.

Police and intelligence agents have carefully monitored campaign meetings and those who call openly for a no-vote face intimidation or worse. Those lucky enough to be arrested, rather than disappearing, join a growing number of civil society activists in prison, most recently human rights defender Germain Rukuki, sentenced to 32 years in prison for supposedly undermining state security.

To anyone familiar with the ethnic violence of Burundi’s past, motivated, in the words of the Arusha Agreement, by the desire to seek or retain political power, these arrests and disappearances are worrying.

Worse still, the government is propagating a virulent public discourse inciting violence against all who oppose it. The president himself set the tone on December 12 when, in announcing the referendum, said anyone opposing it would be “crossing a red line.” Since then, party militants have attacked those campaigning against the referendum or for voting no.

The government’s intention to dismantle the gains of Arusha has long been clear. In March 2014 it tried, but failed, to revise the Constitution through parliament.

Since 2015, the government has advanced its agenda through a carefully constructed doctrine according to which it, and by extension Burundian Hutus, are the victims of an international plot.

While ordinary people have remained resistant to the spectre of ethnic division, the administration has pushed what Crisis Group has previously called “ethnicisation from above,” wherein the country’s troubles are laid at the door of individuals of Tutsi ethnicity (such as Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame or former president Pierre Buyoya) in association with others (the United Nations Commission of Enquiry, the European Union, the International Criminal Court and the AU) who speak out against abuses.

Increasingly the divide is painted in stark religious terms: Between a divinely ordained president and his enemies’ evil machinations.

African solutions

Changing the Constitution in order to stay in power has long been a grey area in the AU’s governance doctrine. Consequently, the continent’s response to Burundi’s three-year-old crisis has been uneven.

The AU reacted early and firmly to the initial turmoil. As events unfolded, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) voiced its concern and attempted to deploy mediators, envoys and human rights observers. As violence peaked at the end of 2015, the PSC authorised a stabilisation force, MAPROBU.

Troops were never deployed, following a relative calming of the situation in-country at the start of 2016.

Bruised and shaken by the MAPROBU debacle, the AU ceded responsibility to the East African Community, under the principle of subsidiarity.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni became the chief negotiator and former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa was appointed facilitator of talks between the government and the now exiled opposition. But sensing that Mkapa had little political backing from African presidents, Nkurunziza refused to give ground. The mediation, which barely got off the ground, has now comprehensively stalled.

Since 2016, the violence in Burundi has remained at a steady rate without threatening to spill over the country’s borders, allowing Nkurunziza to claim a return to normality. While some African leaders and officials are alive to the country’s fragility, others buy into the government’s view.

As a guarantor of Arusha, the AU should resist the erosion of the agreement’s key provisions embodied in the approved constitutional changes. Its half-hearted response to the referendum – January’s AU summit simply called for “a broad consensus of all stakeholders” — will not suffice in the face of a concerted effort to dismantle the very political settlement that brought peace to Burundi.

In a country scarred by ethnic violence, the risks posed by the constitutional changes are huge and the case for preventative action [...] overwhelming.

In a country scarred by ethnic violence, the risks posed by the constitutional changes are huge and the case for preventative action (a key tenet of the AU’s peace and security mandate) overwhelming.

With elections now just two years away, talks between government and opposition aimed at creating a conducive environment for a vote in 2020 are more vital than ever.

The opposition’s mistrust of the ruling CNDD-FDD has deepened to the point where some see violence as the only way of exerting pressure for change. To avoid future escalation, the AU must re-engage now.

The current chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, should use his good offices and the PSC should put Burundi back on its agenda. Greater pressure should be exerted on Bujumbura to open up the political space — including allowing exiled opposition activists to return without fear of harassment or prosecution — and to put an end to its divisive and inflammatory discourse. Without this, the alternative, sooner or later, will be violence.


Project Director, Central Africa
Head of Africa Regional Advocacy