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The Political and Security Crisis in Burundi
The Political and Security Crisis in Burundi
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
De-escalating Tensions in the Great Lakes
Speech / Africa

The Political and Security Crisis in Burundi

Thierry Vircoulon, Crisis Group's Senior Central Africa Consultant, gave his testimony to the U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa and Global Health Policy, during a hearing on the Political and Security Crisis in Burundi.

I appreciate the opportunity to appear this afternoon on behalf of the International Crisis Group before the Senate Foreign Relations Africa Subcommittee to discuss the current political and security crisis in Burundi. We want to thank the chairman and members of the Committee for calling U.S. attention to an already severe humanitarian crisis and one that has the potential for mass atrocities and regional destabilization.

The International Crisis Group came into being because our founders believed that too often, major powers and international organizations ignored the cables, however incomplete they might be, coming from Rwanda, or Srebrenica or the Congo. After the Cold War, there seemingly no longer were strategic linkages from those countries affecting major powers, other than the sheer horror of the human suffering being inflicted.

We are an independent, non-partisan, non-governmental organization that provides field-based analysis, policy advice and recommendations to governments, the United Nations, the European Union and other multilateral organizations on the prevention and resolution of deadly conflict. We were founded in 1995 by distinguished diplomats, statesmen and opinion leaders. Our president is Jean-Marie Guéhenno, former head of UN peacekeeping, and our board of national and international leaders includes four former heads of state and eight former foreign or defense ministers and distinguished African leaders including Cheryl Carolus, former South African High Commissioner to the UK and Secretary General of the African National Congress; Mo Ibrahim, president of Ibrahim Foundation; and Ayo Obe, Nigerian lawyer and human rights activist. U.S. foreign policy leaders on our board include Ambassador and former Undersecretary of Political Affairs Thomas Pickering, former NATO Supreme Commander Wesley Clark, former Senator Olympia Snowe, former career Ambassador Mort Abramowitz and former Secretary of the Treasury Lawrence Summers.

Crisis Group has been following developments in Burundi for almost two decades, and we have warned repeatedly about this crisis building under President Pierre Nkurunziza, one with political origins but with clear ethnic undercurrents. The first phase of the present crisis began with the 2010 elections. Those polls were a logistical success but political failure. The opposition only participated in the communal elections and boycotted the national ones, charging the government with unfairly tilting the playing field, but thereby leaving national political institutions dominated by the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD).

Immediately following those elections, the government launched a repressive post-electoral campaign of extrajudicial killings and forced its main opponents out of the country. As a result, civil society and independent media became the only dissenting voices. From 2010 to 2014, there was steady polarization, socio-economic discontent and further closing of political space. It included a failed constitutional review, public disputes between civil society watchdogs and the government, and the government arming the youth wing of the CNDD-FDD known as the Imbonerakure to maintain a tight grip on the countryside. The Nkurunziza administration established a near monopoly and corrupt control over state resources, bribed and coerced opposition party leaders and over time used national police and security forces to enforce authoritarian governance.

The earlier political deterioration exploded finally into the second phase of the crisis in 2014 centered on the growing evidence that Nkurunziza intended to run for a third term—violating the Arusha Accord which had ended the country’s 12 year civil war. During the electoral preparations, the government and the opposition disagreed on almost everything, from the composition of the local electoral commissions to the registration of voters, stripping its legitimacy from the start. At the end of 2014, all the unsolved problems of the previous four years had resurfaced. With the ruling party rejecting any consensual approach, opposition and civil society had no faith in the electoral process as a means to achieve political change.

The third phase of the crisis started in April this year with street protests against President Nkurunziza’s candidacy for a third term. After the president managed to obtain the blessing of the constitutional court and to silence those who opposed his candidacy within his own party, demonstrations in Bujumbura, the capital city, quickly turned violent. Daily confrontations occurred between the security forces/Imbonerakure and a coalition of political opposition/civil society organizations who enjoyed the moral support of the Catholic Church. Two key developments happened during this phase. First, the army, which had initially played a positive role by interposing its forces between demonstrators and police to halt conflict, became increasingly fractured leading finally to high-ranking officers organizing a failed coup in May. Second, given increasing rifts within the CNDD-FDD and fearing for their lives, many moderate leaders of the ruling party fled the country, leaving the radicals in complete control of the party and the state. Regional and international attempts to mediate the crisis in June and July only managed to delay elections without substantially improving the conditions under which they were held.

The final phase of the crisis—armed confrontation—corresponded with President Nukurnziza securing a third-term mandate in July after fraught elections declared unfair by virtually every observer, including the African Union, the European Union, the U.S. and other governments. Nightly police raids and execution-style operations followed in districts of Bujumbura where many regime opponents lived and have led now to the militarization of the political conflict, with dead bodies dumped in the streets each night and grenade attacks occurring almost daily. A normal day in Bujumbura starts with the counting of the night’s death toll.

Why the Burundi crisis matters

Even beyond the the humanitarian tragedy unfolding in Burundi, the regime now looks more and more like a failed police state. There is violent and open confrontation between armed government forces and a large opposition consortium, also increasingly armed. President Nkurunziza and the leaders of the ruling party are bunkering themselves; the economy is barely functioning (according to the IMF, GDP will have shrunk by 7.2 per cent this year); many businessmen and women, civil society leaders and journalists are out of the country; security institutions are politicized and divided. The stability of Burundi is in jeopardy with dangerous regional consequences.

Regional spillover no longer is just a threat, but a reality. Population flight already has produced a refugee crisis with several hundred thousand Burundians fleeing across the country’s borders in eight months. The formal refugee numbers, undoubtedly understated, of 215,000 include 70,000 in Rwanda, more than 100,000in western Tanzania and the rest in DRC and Uganda. Serious tensions with Rwanda include the severing of diplomatic ties and Kigali accusing Burundi of tolerating the presence of Rwandan Hutu FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, an armed militia that may still include former genocidaires) and Bujumbura accusing Kigali of recruiting, training and arming Burundian refugees in refugee camps in Rwanda.

The pattern of violence changed immediately following the reelection of president Nkurunziza. Targeted assassinations of key personalities in both camps have taken place (General Nishirimana, Colonel Bikomagu, an assassination attempt of Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, a wellknown human rights activist, and the recent murder of one of his sons; and another attack on the army chief of staff) along with mortar attacks against the presidential palace. Both sides are radicalizing. Government officials are reviving the rhetoric from the civil war of 1993-2005. The president made public an ultimatum giving the “criminals” seven days to lay down arms. Révérien Ndikuriyo, the Senate president, cryptically warned on 1 November that the police would soon go to “work” and asked district heads to identify “elements which are not in order”. The language is unambiguous to Burundians and chillingly similar to that used in Rwanda in the 1990s before the genocide. The opposition is organizing in exile and a platform was created in Addis Ababa by politicians (including the moderates from the ruling party), civil society leaders and former military officers. The present patterns of violence are a reminder of what happened before the civil war broke out in 1993. For the Burundians, the story is repeating itself. This déjà vu feeling and the memories of the civil war are the reasons why so many of them have left their country.

One of the fundamental reasons why this crisis matters for Burundi, Africa and the international communities is that it challenges the Arusha peace agreement of August 2000 that was painstakingly negotiated during four years to bring peace to a country where 300,000 had died in more than a decade of conflict. That accord, negotiated with the facilitation of two African presidents (President Julius Nyerere and President Nelson Mandela) and endorsed by the UN, AU, US France and the EU, institutionalized political and ethnic power-sharing between Hutu and Tutsi. The Arusha agreement explicitly mentions the two-term limit for presidents (article 7). While there had been a long list of violations of the Arusha agreement since its signing and a failure in the constitutional review attempt of 2014, it was the violation of the no third term provision that was the straw that finally broke the camel’s back.

In its report Bye Bye Arusha, written in 2012, Crisis Group warned that the ruling party was distancing itself from the Arusha agreement and listed all the violations of the peace accord. The CNDD-FDD never genuinely adhered to its principles and blocked the implementation of those which were detrimental to its monopoly of power. For instance, it discarded the creation of a special tribunal to deal with the crimes of the civil war and opted only for the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission whose work has not even started. Indeed the issue of post-conflict justice has remained the elephant in the room during the two mandates of president Nkurunziza who has been granted provisional amnesty. The present crisis also has demonstrated another critical violation of the Arusha agreement: the politicization of the security forces. The ruling party gradually distanced itself from the Arusha agreement because most Arusha guarantors did not follow up on their commitments to long-term political engagement and resorted to a near completely private diplomatic approach without firm consequences until very recently, despite clear signs of authoritarian actions and violation of the Arusha accord.

One of the most glaring failures by Arusha sponsors was not enforcing respect for the results of international mediation. Mediation brokered a deal for the return of the opponents in exile in 2013 with the view of making the 2015 elections inclusive. Special envoys from the U.S., the EU, Belgium, France, the UK and other countries also enabled a dialogue led by the UN special envoy between the opposition coalition and the government to try and bring peace during street protests earlier this year. However, the aim of an inclusive electoral process was gutted by Nkurunziza’s insistence on running for a third term. The mediation was officially handed over to the Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni this past summer but, despite informal consultations, no meeting has happened yet under his chairmanship. The resumption of the dialogue is the only option at this stage but only informal consultations have been held and the most that is hoped is that a meeting may happen before the end of the year.

As Burundi’s civil war was ended by an agreement negotiated by African leaders, Western governments have again waited for an African solution, i.e. a regionally mediated dialogue. Unfortunately, times have changed. South Africa has disengaged from Burundi and its present government seems disinterested in preserving Mandela’s legacy. The East African Community (EAC) has been mandated to find a solution but is too divided. In addition, its chief mediator, Ugandan President Museveni, in power since 1986, is himself busy with the preparation of elections in early 2016.

U.S. President Barack Obama’s 27 October decision to exclude Burundi from the “African Growth and Opportunity Act” is an important signal of the U.S.’s growing concern, but it is not enough. The African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC) has been most outspoken in demanding an end to violence and a resumption of a facilitated dialogue, issuing a strong communique and threatening the use of an African Union intervention force, but does not want to bypass president Museveni and the EAC.

Right now the westerners are waiting for the AU, the AU is waiting for president Museveni and the people of Burundi are waiting for the end of violence. If there is no regionally mediated dialogue, the likely scenarios include: a new coup attempt, the emergence of a guerilla force in the countryside and/or a large scale repression against the rebellious districts of Bujumbura.

Another reason why what happens in Burundi matters is it could set a dangerous precedent among its neighbors. While there are substantial differences in each of its neighbors where the third term issue also is a matter of dispute, the potential for political unraveling appears greatest in the DRC where a third term for its president Joseph Kabila constitutes a similar violation of the peace agreement and the DRC constitution.

The way forward

The resumption of the dialogue between the opposition and the government is absolutely essential. This implies the formation of an international mediation team with AU, EAC, International organization of the French speaking countries (IOF), UN representatives, supported by the U.S. and the EU with additional sanctions against those responsible for egregious violence, like those the U.S. announced last week--to put pressure on the reluctant stakeholders.

The agenda of the internationally mediated dialogue should be open and it should include the Arusha agreement. As the stumbling block of the post-conflict regime, the Arusha agreement is the reference point in every political discussion about Burundi but a frank discussion is needed about the future of the Arusha agreement and its values that have underpinned the hard-won peace in Burundi. The Arusha agreement is at the core of the Burundi crisis and therefore it must not be taboo. Some 15 years after its signing it is legitimate to ask whether some changes – but only if adopted consensually – are needed.

The UN should be planning, if an AU led peace implementation mission cannot be deployed quickly to bring MONUSCO’s FIB into action if there is a need to halt atrocities. In addition, the AU should be examining how it could replace Burundian troops in AMISOM if that becomes necessary. In addition, the AU, the U.S., UK and other concerned members of the international community should quietly stress to the Rwandan and new Tanzanian governments that they must play more constructive roles.

The wait-and-see attitude of the international community during the past four years is part of the reason why the crisis has brought us to this point. There is now urgency for more coherent and determined international action to halt the country’s further disintegration and expanded violence within and beyond Burundi’s borders.

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.