Will Burundi Miss Out on Democratic Consolidation?
Will Burundi Miss Out on Democratic Consolidation?
Watch List 2021 – Autumn Update
Watch List 2021 – Autumn Update
Commentary / Africa

Will Burundi Miss Out on Democratic Consolidation?

Five months after the publication of Crisis Group’s report Burundi: From Electoral Boycott to Political impasse, the negative dynamics that were analysed continue to have devastating effects. Despite reassuring declarations from the government, the end of the Arusha consensus combined with the deteriorating political climate that followed the electoral boycott of 2010, have contributed directly to an escalation of violence and insecurity.

Since the boycott by the opposition parties, the government has pursued a strategy of narginalising its opponents. It has refused to engage in dialogue, while adopting a new law for political parties which effectively discards all the political leaders in exile[fn]The new law includes a provision requiring all founding members of a political party to provide a proof of residence. Considering that all political parties have six months to comply with the new law once again it passed, the continued exile of the political parties leaders de facto excludes them from their party.Hide Footnote  and exacerbates the internal divisions within the opposition movements[fn]After the FNL internal coup following the 2010 elections that led to the dismissal of Agathon Rwasa, it is the UPD who is a victim of internal strife.Hide Footnote .

In addition to this strategy of marginalisation, the security situation has deteriorated with a proliferation of desertions from the army, intimidation by rebels in order to raise money, and frequent violent attacks that have resulted in casualties amongst the security forces, members of the ruling party Conseil National pour la Défense de la Démocratie et Forces de Défense de la Démocratie (CNDD-FDD), as well as the opposition. Official claims that these are acts of “armed banditry” have not fooled anyone in Burundi, as the violence is located in the traditional strongholds of the Forces Nationales de Libération (FNL), and the perpetrators identify themselves as detractors of the Nkurunziza regime.

The increasing boldness of these attacks (including direct confrontations with the police) contradicts the official discourse of “restored security”. Recent attacks committed following independence day celebrations were claimed by a new rebel group, FRONABU-Tabara. To quote one local observer, “the current violence is akin to new liquor in an old bottle”: the violent techniques used are well known by the Burundians, but clashes are now intra-ethnic rather than inter-ethnic.[fn]The civil war that killed an estimated 300,000 victims opposed the Tutsi and the Hutu, while the current violence is mainly between Hutu political movements.Hide Footnote

The dynamics of political-security regression takes place in an uncomfortable social and economic climate for the CNDD-FDD. On the social front, the rising cost of living has led to growing popular discontent, compounded by the increasing number of revelations about illicit enrichment by elements of the ruling party. The party has seen several defections,  including of high profile figures,  the most important being Manasseh Nzobonimpa, a former CNDD-FDD politician who announced the creation of a new political party (The Patriots’ Gathering for the Restoration of Democracy) after denouncing corruption within the CNDD-FDD.

Despite this tense atmosphere, some institutional checks and balance mechanisms have recently been established, including the creation of the ombudsman’s office, the Independent Commission for Human Rights, a preparatory commission for transitional justice. A recent shift in President Nkurunziza’s position towards his political detractors should be noted, when he spoke publicly for the first time on 30 June in favour of opening a dialogue with the opposition: “We take this opportunity to appeal to politicians who are outside. They should come home, so that we can exchange ideas that could contribute to the joint construction of our country, and besides they should begin to prepare for the elections of 2015.”[fn]Speech of His Excellency Pierre Nkurunziza on the occasion of the 49th anniversary of the   Independence, June 30, 2011.Hide Footnote

This announcement represents an important opening for the opposition, and seizing this opportunity for dialogue presents the best chance to reverse the regressive political and security dynamics triggered by an election in 2010 that was technically valid, but politically questionable.

The Current Political Configuration Is Conducive to the Resumption of Dialogue

  • The proposal for dialogue comes from the highest level in the government and the opposition is organised within the ADC coalition, which is a representative platform.
     
  • The government and opposition have understood the limits of their respective strategies: the authorities have realised that a security strategy by itself can not solve the current problem and the opposition leaders have understood that being outside the political system reduces their room for manoeuvre.
     
  • The government and the opposition have moved beyond some of the disputes of 2010: the authorities, from the president down, have previously ruled out any questioning of the 2010 election results. This position, widely shared by international actors, is now tacitly accepted by the ADC.

It is important to clarify that the government is talking about a dialogue and not negotiations; the election results of 2010 can not be reversed. For its part, the opposition ADC coalition believes that whatever term is used, dialogue or negotiation,  the critical factor is that all parties are gathered around the same table.

The Conditions for Opening a Dialogue

The government has yet to publicly take a stand on the issue, but will want the opposition to abandon its armed struggle and dissociate itself from perpetrators of violence. This is unlikely to be accepted without substantial reciprocal concessions. It is important to note, however, that during previous negotiation processes rebel groups in Burundi have not stopped fighting, as the continuation of hostilities has been used as a way to put pressure on the opposing party.

The opposition parties in the ADC have set out their conditions regarding the opening of dialogue: the release of political prisoners, an end to arbitrary arrests of opposition members, security guarantees for the opposition leaders exiled or in hiding, the retraction of the new law regarding political parties, and the reinstatement of Agathon Rwasa to the leadership of the FNL.

Dialogue: Where?

The current security environment presents an acute challenge to the the president’s call for opposition leaders’ return  Since making this appeal, neither the government nor the opposition have formally discussed publically a prospective legitimate platform for the dialogue. Until recently, the authorities have always considered the Permanent Forum of Political Parties (PFPP) as the right platform, but this body has been criticised and boycotted by the ADC, who accuse it of being subservient to the ruling party. Most opposition leaders are in exile or in hiding, making it essential to ensure discussions are conducted in a mutually safe environment, which in the circumstances means outside of Burundi. This would also avoid the dialogue being complicated by sensitive issues around individual guarantees of security and immunity, not to mention the contested legitimacy of the PFPP.

Having rejected the mediation efforts during the electoral process by countries involved in the regional initiative for peace in Burundi, the ADC now seems more open to this approach. The resuscitation of the regional initiative of the Burundian question should been seen positively, as the initiative is the formal guarantor for the implementation of the Arusha agreement. However, this also constitutes a “return to the past” that the government will not accept because it may tarnish its international image as a peacemaker. In these circumstances, it is important that dialogue is facilitated by a country that has not played a prominent role in past negotiations.

Reaching a Consensual Dialogue Agenda

The government and the opposition should agree to discuss the following issues:

  • The question of political rights, including: law on political parties (not yet enacted), law on the opposition (still under review), preparation of the elections of 2015.
     
  • Security and justice: security guarantees for the political leaders in exile and in hiding, functioning of the judiciary (judicial independence, installation of the High Court of Justice, etc.).
     
  • Governance: constitutional reform (referred to by the president in his speech on the occasion of the anniversary of independence), fight against corruption.

In the current circumstances, there is a real opportunity to translate the presidential olive branch into tangible actions that can lead to a reduction of violence. This is not an insurmountable task, but requires political will and commitment, an agreed agenda and a mutually agreed locale for dialogue. Burundi is at a crossroads, as democratic consolidation in post-conflict settings invariably takes between 5 to 10 years. At this juncture it is critical that a renewed dialogue is built on firm foundations and is helped in the right direction as far as possible.

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