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Burundi: how to deconstruct peace

Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza speaks during a news conference in Bujumburi on May 17, 2015. Picture: Goran Tomasevic

Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza speaks during a news conference in Bujumburi on May 17, 2015. Picture: Goran Tomasevic

Published Dec 3, 2015


Bujumbura - Burundi is back in the spotlight of the world’s media and the agenda of the UN Security Council.

As recently as two years ago, the country was considered a success story in peace-building circles, but now the news is of a negative variety. The UN is trying to prevent a civil war in a region haunted by the Rwandan genocide. How did success so quickly turn to failure?

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Following the re-election of President Pierre Nkurunziza for a contentious third term in July, the Burundian crisis has entered a third phase.

The first was the 2014 dispute around electoral preparations.

The government and opposition disagreed on almost everything, from the composition of the local electoral commissions to the registration of voters, stripping it of legitimacy from the start.

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The second involved street protests against Nkurunziza’s pursuit of the presidency in April.

Demonstrations in the capital Bujumbura quickly turned violent, with confrontations between the government and a coalition of political opposition, civil society organisations, and the Catholic Church.

A failed coup radicalised all stakeholders, and international mediation attempts in June and July only managed to delay elections without improving conditions in which they would be held.

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The third phase - armed confrontation - corresponded with the third-term mandate granted to Nkurunziza.

Nightly police raids and execution-style operations in Bujumbura hosting the regime’s opponents have led to daily disappearances and discoveries of bodies.

There is now a dictatorial atmosphere within the country: the opposition and most civil society leaders are in exile; international NGOs are under surveillance; independent media have been shut down, with about 100 Burundian journalists - most of the profession - leaving; and the government is reviving rhetoric from the civil war of 1993-2005.

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Isolation is growing: most international donors have suspended aid programmes and the largest, the EU, is looking to follow suit.

The US, EU, and AU have implemented targeted sanctions, while relations with Rwanda and Belgium are strained.

Both the president and the population are living in fear.

Concerned about assassination, Nkurunziza is no longer residing in Bujumbura, nor his hometown of Ngozi, and the people are scared to speak freely or leave home after dark.

This is driving many from the country: according to the UN’s refugee agency, about 215 000 have fled in eight months.

A national crisis has become a regional one, and Burundi may soon be facing a protracted civil war, or at the least a coup attempt.

A genocide-in-the making is the worst-case scenario, although this ignores the fact that opposition to the president is multi-ethnic.

The growing conflict could reduce what was a long and hard-fought peace-building effort to nothing. It took two African presidents - Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela - and four years to negotiate the Arusha peace agreement that ended Burundi’s civil war; it took eight to convince all armed groups to lay down weapons and accept a democratic political system.

Burundi has remained on the UN peace-building commission agenda throughout this process, so how could things have again reached this stage?

Challenging term limits is dangerous in post-conflict settings, especially amid a long dispute between the ruling party and opposition.

The present crisis has roots in the 2010 polls, which were a logistical success but a political failure.

The opposition only participated in the communal elections and boycotted the others, and the government launched a repressive post-electoral campaign that forced its main opponents out of the country.

Against this backdrop, the ambiguous legality of Nkurunziza’s candidacy sparked a concerned political opposition to turn to the streets.

In truth, the success of Burundi’s peaceful transition was overstated to begin with.

The implementation of the Arusha agreement was unfinished and undesired by the government.

The ruling party never adhered to its principles and had not been part of the negotiations process.

It even blocked the implementation of several conditions, including, most prominently, those related to the creation of a special tribunal to judge the crimes of the civil war. Consequently, nobody has answered for these and Burundi has failed to move past them.

In addition, foreign observers considered the peaceful integration of militiamen into state security services proof of unity and the depoliticisation of the security sector.

But integration did not equal unity: parallel chains of command were established to discreetly shift the balance of power and maintain political and ethnic control over it.

The transformation of leaders of the armed groups into elected politicians has not entrenched democratic values, nor good governance.

These individuals quickly became corrupt and failed to improve the living conditions of the population, especially the urban youth who mobilised against Nkurunziza this year.

The countries and organisations that guarantee the Arusha agreement paid little attention to these developments.

They were complacent with the post-conflict regime despite its rising corruption, poor human rights record, and authoritarian behaviour.

They turned a blind eye to these dangerous patterns and continued to promote the narrative of success that was convenient for all stakeholders; it pleased the Burundian government and justified the political disengagement of others.

The return of authoritarian and corrupt governance has been made possible because the guarantors of the Arusha agreement did not follow through on their commitments.

They ignored early warnings about authoritarian governance and that peace was beginning to unravel. Peace-building requires a long-term political engagement to have any success.

This is something those seeking an end to the crisis must bear in mind if they are to achieve more than a brief interruption of fighting and instability.

- Thierry Vircoulon is project director for central Africa at the International Crisis Group. This article first appeared in the International Peace Institute’s Global Observatory website

Sunday Tribune

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