Africa / 22 January 2016, 3:52pm / Peter Fabricius
Pretoria - South Africa’s likely participation in efforts to resolve the Burundi crisis has been welcomed.
But Stephanie Wolters, Great Lakes expert at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria, has cautioned that South Africa would have to ensure that it is seen as neutral, and not close to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government, if it wanted to succeed.
She was commenting on the disclosure by South Africa’s International Relations and Cooperation Minister Maite Nkoana-Mashabane on Thursday that both Nkurunziza’s special envoy, Pascal Nyabenda, who is Speaker of the Burundian Parliament, and Tanzanian foreign minister Augustine Mahiga had said they wanted South Africa to become involved in the mediation efforts.
Tanzania currently chairs the East African Community (EAC) which is leading the efforts to broker a resolution of the crisis, through Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
Burundi has been embroiled in a deteriorating crisis, with growing violence, since April last year when opponents began demonstrating against Nkurunziza’s announcement he would run for a third term as president, despite the two-term limit in the constitution.
Nkoana-Mashabane said at a press conference in Pretoria that she and South African President Jacob Zuma had met Nyabenda earlier in Pretoria and she had met him again on her own on Wednesday. She had also met Mahiga in South Africa recently.
Both had said they would like South Africa to become involved, particularly because of Zuma’s earlier mediation which contributed towards the end of the civil war in Burundi and ushered in Nkurunziza’s Hutu-majority government. Nkoana-Mashabane said South Africa was now waiting for a formal invitation, which it would accept.
Wolters had called for greater South African involvement in the Burundi crisis in an article on the ISS website which was coincidentally published on Thursday.
“International and regional actors have wanted South Africa to get more involved in supporting a peaceful resolution of the crisis in Burundi, and this is an important first step,” she said on Friday.
“South Africa - and President Zuma himself - has a long historical relationship mediating peace talks in Burundi, and Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni and the EAC are open to South Africa’s involvement, so there is no stepping on toes as there has been in other crises in the Great Lakes, notably eastern DRC, where the region was not as welcoming towards South Africa’s involvement.
“If South Africa’s mediation role is to be successful, it will be very important that it is seen as neutral - especially by the political opposition. If it is perceived as being close to the Burundian government, it will be rejected.
“It is also a good sign that the Burundian government is making the effort to get South Africa involved in the talks, particularly as this is an indication that it stills considers that process important.
“The government refused to return to the negotiating table in early January, saying that it would not negotiate with criminals – a reference to the political opposition, which it accuses of backing various anti-government armed groups, and the talks have been stalled ever since.”
Nkoana-Mashabane also said on Thursday that Nyabenda had told her and Zuma that Burundi might be prepared to allow a proposed African Union peacekeeping force into Burundi, if its mandate was narrowly defined as protecting civilians during peace negotiations.
This contrasted sharply with the Burundian government’s adamant rejection of the force so far.
Also Thursday, Willy Nyamitwe, Nkurunziza’s spokesman, who is in the US lobbying against the deployment of the AU force, told the French radio station RFI that Burundi was dead against the force, adding that the grounds for the deployment - a risk of genocide according to him - were not a reality in Burundi.
As Nkoana-Mashabane said, African leaders were expected to make a final decision on the deployment of the force, at the African Union summit in Addis Ababa next week.
The force was proposed by the AU’s Peace and Security Council in December.