Report / Africa 4 minutes

Burundi Under Siege

Burundi has spent the most part of the past five years embroiled in a vicious civil war that has so far claimed more than 200,000 lives and triggered massive movements of refugees and displaced persons and which continues to add to instability throughout the Great Lakes region.

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Executive Summary

Burundi has spent the most part of the past five years embroiled in a vicious civil war that has so far claimed more than 200,000 lives and triggered massive movements of refugees and displaced persons and which continues to add to instability throughout the Great Lakes region.  Since July 1996, the country has been largely cut off from the outside world, following the decision by neighbouring countries in the region to impose harsh economic sanctions in response to the overthrow of Burundi’s coalition government by the Tutsi-dominated military.

The swift response of regional leaders to the Burundi coup in July 1996 and their show of resolve to force the military government, led by Major Pierre Buyoya, to restore multiparty democracy and enter into all-party talks on the future of the country is undeniably impressive.  Meeting within five days of the military’s seizure of power, the leaders of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Zaire and Ethiopia agreed to impose uniform sanctions on Burundi, issued a list of specific demands that the Burundian government would have to meet for the sanctions to be lifted and gave their full backing to former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere’s efforts to mediate a settlement to the crisis.

The wider international community, including the United States and key European states, greeted the efforts of regional leaders to impose a solution on Burundi through a combination of economic pressure and negotiations with barely disguised relief.  Western governments, still haunted by their failure to do more to prevent the Rwanda genocide of 1994 in which almost a million people lost their lives, lent strong political and financial support to the regional leaders and, specifically, to former president Nyerere as the regional peace-broker.  At the time, the speed and unity of the regional response to events in the Burundian capital, Bujumbura, seemed to auger well for the future.  It became common to hear US and European politicians arguing that the determination of leaders in the Great Lakes region to impose a peace process on Burundi was evidence that Africans were increasingly taking on responsibility for solving their own problems.

20 months on, the situation remains far from resolved.  While the swift response of regional leaders to the coup in Burundi undoubtedly had an immediate and positive impact on the political situation inside Burundi – leading within weeks to a lifting of the ban on political parties and the restoration of the country’s Parliament – the main objectives of regional and international policy have yet to be achieved.  Burundi’s military government remains in place; violence continues, albeit at a lower rate than before the coup; and while there is evidence of a limited rapprochement between key parties within Burundi, including between the Government and the Parliament, genuine peace talks have yet to begin.  Meanwhile, Nyerere’s regional peace process remains at a standstill against a backdrop of mutual recriminations and allegations that the mediator’s neutrality has been compromised by his support for punitive sanctions on Burundi.  The embargo, originally intended as a regional policy, has evolved into a personal feud between the former Tanzanian president and the president of Uganda on the one hand and Buyoya on the other.  As hopes of a breakthrough fade, Burundi’s neighbours have become increasingly divided on what measures to take to break the deadlock.

The present report, compiled by an ICG field analyst based in Bujumbura, provides an assessment of the current situation in Burundi and the region.  In particular it examines the key changes during the 20 months since the 1996 coup.  It  weighs up the performance of the Buyoya military government in restoring security and opening up dialogue between Burundi’s factions and looks in detail at the impact of the economic embargo on the peace process, both within the country and in the region.

The report catalogues a number of serious obstacles that reduce the Burundi government’s room for manoeuvre and limit the chances of progress towards productive all-party negotiations on the country’s future.  These include:

  • a radicalisation of some elements of the army and Tutsi community who fear pressure from the region may force the government into making concessions that compromise the security of the Tutsi minority;
     
  • fragmentation of the government’s political base, with deep divisions within the Tutsi-dominated UPRONA party
     
  • splits in the opposition, within the Hutu-dominated FRODEBU party and between the political opposition parties and armed elements;
     
  • the threat of an active rebellion, and
     
  • a crisis of confidence in the country’s judicial system, making it impossible for those guilty of past atrocities to be tried and the culture of impunity to be tackled.

The report criticises the refusal of regional leaders not to consider changing tack in the face of mounting evidence that their emphasis on economic sanctions as a means of forcing Burundi’s parties into an open, regionally-brokered peace process has failed to deliver the desired results.  As the report points out, the sanctions policy has:

  • not removed the president from power;
     
  • made Burundi’s poor poorer – by inflicting widespread human suffering and economic squalor on the most vulnerable and deprived sections of Burundian society; and made the rich richer – by creating opportunities for extortion rackets, corruption and highly-profitable black market economic activities;
     
  • failed to exert significant economic hardship on members and supporters of the government and the military, who can by and large afford inflated prices;
     
  • not strangled the Burundian economy which still functions, albeit unreliably, by virtue of illegal smuggling, corruption and a thriving black market;
     
  • narrowed Buyoya’s political base, marginalising moderates and radicalising certain elements within the army and the minority Tutsi community by adding to their sense of persecution and vulnerability;
     
  • undermined the regional peace process by seriously damaging the relationship between Burundi and the other countries of the region;
     
  • made compromise less not more likely by forcing the Burundi government to choose between caving into regional demands, and therefore losing all face, or standing firm and handling the crisis internally (a winner/loser scenario); and
     
  • shifted the focus of peace-making efforts away from the content of negotiations and instead onto the nature of the negotiating process – tying the lifting of the embargo to the start of a regionally-led external peace process.

Bujumbura/ Burundi, 28 April 1998

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