A protester sets up a  barricade during a protest against Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza and his bid for a third term in Bujumbura, Burundi, in this May 2015 file photo.  REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/Files
A protester sets up a barricade during a protest against Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza and his bid for a third term in Bujumbura, Burundi, in this May 2015 file photo. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic/Files

Burundi: Will action follow tough talk?

By Peter Fabricius Time of article published Nov 16, 2015

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Johannesburg – The heightened international and regional attention being given to the Burundi crisis has been welcomed, but there remain doubts as to whether it will translate into real pressure on the antagonists.

The African Union (AU) has threatened sanctions against those Burundians who thwart peace efforts and the UN Security Council is contemplating sending in a peacekeeping force.

These moves follow more threatening rhetoric from the Burundian government against its opponents and increased violence from both sides.

Five more dead bodies were discovered in the capital Bujumbura early on Monday and the house of the city’s mayor – who backs President Pierre Nkurunziza – was shot at, according to activists and agencies.

The increased international attention appears to have been prompted mainly by dire threats of retribution by Nkurunziza’s henchmen against opposition members who refused to disarm.

Some of the government statements have ominously echoed those made by neighbouring Rwanda’s Hutu government just before the genocide there in 1994.

But analysts are playing down an imminent threat of genocide, noting that the conflict in Burundi so far as been a political one, between different factions within the majority Hutu ethnic group. The minority Tutsis have largely been bystanders.

Yolande Bouka, a Burundi expert with the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi, also noted Monday that the situation in Burundi today was very different from that in Rwanda just before the genocide.

The main difference was that the Tutsi-led Rwanda Patriotic Front was then occupying a large part of Rwanda and the Hutu government feared a Tutsi takeover.

That is not the position in Burundi today she said. However, she said that if the security situation in the country continued to deteriorate, that might change and the conflict could take on an ethnic dimension.

She noted that the mechanisms and protections to protect the minority Tutsi which were built into the Arusha accords to end the civil war a decade ago, were gradually eroding.

Bouka said Nkurunziza’s government was superficially still maintaining the Tutsi quotas in government and military positions, for instance.

“But the real decisions are increasingly being made by a small group of Hutus close to Nkurunziza.”

Bouka expressed considerable doubts that either the UN Security Council or the AU would follow through on their threats of stronger action against those thwarting peace efforts, on both sides of the divide.

She also asked why it had taken the AU until now to threaten sanctions since the crisis had been evolving slowly for the past six months.

“Is it the greater momentum which the armed opposition has gained over the last few weeks which is responsible for this bolder language?” she asked.

Bouka said too many questions remained unanswered also about the Uganda-led regional mediation that is supposed to take place between Nkurunziza’s government and the opposition.

For one thing, the more radical armed opposition in exile, was not included. The aim of the talks was also not clear, she said. “Is the aim to take Burundi back to the transition? We have already had a transition. Is the crisis so severe that we need to go back to transition?”

Bouka also questioned the likelihood of an outside peacekeeping force actually being sent into Burundi, as the UN Security Council suggested last week and the AU Peace and Security Council endorsed.

Two options had been suggested, she said: the deployment either of the standby force of the East African Community or of the existing UN peacekeeping force Monusco, from across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In either case, the critical question was whether the proposed force would have a UN Chapter 7 mandate which would allow it to intervene without the Burundian government’s position – or would it require such permission.

Burundi’s foreign minister has been quoted in local media as opposing any external military intervention so permission seems unlikely.

The crisis erupted when Nkurunziza announced in April that he would run for a third term as president, even though this decision seemed to violate both Burundi’s constitution and the Arusha accords which settled Burundi’s civil war and ushered in democracy a decade ago.


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