As Burundi continues to slide toward Rwanda-style chaos, the international community's slender hopes of halting the bitter ethnic conflict are resting on one man.
For the past six months, mediator Julius Nyerere, one of Africa's most prominent elder statesmen and Tanzania's president from 1962 to 1984, has struggled to bring Burundi's bitter Hutu and Tutsi foes to the negotiating table.
His chances for success are slim. More than 150,000 Burundians have been killed in ethnic violence since 1993, when renegade troops from the Tutsi-dominated Army assassinated the country's first Hutu president. In recent months, disparate Hutu rebel groups have gained ground in a series of assaults.
"It could explode tomorrow, because all the elements for an explosion are there," former President Nyerere told the Monitor during a recent stopover in Nairobi.
Nyerere has persuaded Burundi's rival factions to convene for talks three times in recent months in the northern Tanzanian town of Mwanza. The discussions have foundered. But he plans to gather the main adversaries together again this month.
He says he's not eager to blame either party in the dispute. But for the first time he is publicly admonishing one side, the Tutsis, who dominate Burundi's Army and powerful Unity for National Progress (Uprona) political party . He says it twice blocked agreements in the Mwanza talks and remains the main obstacle to peace.
"I want the international community to understand the one side [the Tutsis] that is the problem at this stage," he explained in an exclusive interview. "I've spoken to the Army leaders, and I've been completely brutish to them. I've said, 'The time for you to run this country is over.' "
Uprona and the Hutu-dominated Front for Democracy in Burundi (Frodebu) party blame each other for the failure of the negotiations. Nyerere warns that if Burundi's smoldering ethnic crisis erupts, it could spark a regional war of central Africa's Hutus and Tutsis. He says Rwanda's Tutsi-led Army and the exiled Hutu Interahamwe militia who helped organize and implement the 1994 genocide could both be lured into the conflict.
To prevent regional war, the elder statesman appears committed to more than just talk. United Nations officials say Nyerere is prepared to use his country's own Army to intervene, if mass killings break out in Burundi. "You'll not solve the problem by military intervention, but you must not rule out military intervention," he says. "If there is an eruption of killings there, the international community must not sit again with its hands folded, as we did in Rwanda."
Burundi's strife stands in contrast to the dynamic in Rwanda before the 1994 genocide. In Burundi, the Tutsi minority has long controlled the country's powerful military and has used the armed forces to blunt the threat posed by rebels from the Hutu majority. With most of the heavy weaponry in the hands of Tutsis, and Hutus drawing on the largest population base, the result is what some observers call a "balance of terror."
Nyerere says the way out of the dilemma is to convince the mainly Tutsi Army and government that if they relinquish power, they won't be doomed. He compares the Tutsi fears of ceding control to that of white South Africans' during last days of apartheid.
"I think the whites in South Africa were frightened. You dominate a majority and you don't like giving up power," he said. "It's like being on the back of a tiger. You're told to get off the back of a tiger, and you think, 'Oh no, it will eat me up!' "