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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
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
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.

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.