With stability at stake, Burundi's neighbors step up involvement

Regional foreign ministers met this week to try to prevent the escalation of violence in Burundi over President Nkurunziza bid for a third term in office. Many Burundians have put their hopes for compromise in foreign intervention.

Jean Pierre Aime Harerimana/Reuters
Soldiers stand near a burning barricade during demonstrations by protesters against the ruling CNDD-FDD party's decision to allow Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza to run for a third five-year term in office, in Bujumbura, May 7, 2015.

The Burundian military intervened in antigovernment demonstrations for the first time on Thursday, bulldozing protesters’ roadblocks in the Musaga neighborhood of Bujumbura, the capital.  

For protesters, it was a blow. But shock soon gave way to resistance as they regrouped, chanting antigovernment slogans and refusing to cede ground. Until then, what is regarded as a trusted and well-trained military had left intervention of the two-week protests -- against President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term -- to the police.

Although Thursday's confrontation was not violent, for the protestors present, it signaled the loss of a potential ally and fueled a sense that outside intervention was the only hope in a fight where the government has the upper hand.

“We need help from outside Burundi,” says Niyoyankunze Ferdinand, a protester from Musaga. “It’s a sign that things are becoming really complicated. We don’t know who we can trust.”

Many Burundians hoped Wednesday's arrival of East African Community (EAC) foreign ministers – from Rwanda, Tanzania, Kenya, and Uganda – in Bujumbura, signaled the beginning of that outside assistance.

Their arrival was an acknowledgement that Burundi’s instability posed a threat to the whole region, where peace, when it exists, is tenuous.

Burundi’s civil war from 1993-2005 is seen as closely related to neighboring Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, as well as the two-decade war in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo.

Stakes are high: Some 40,000 Burundians have already fled for fear of violence to neighboring countries, mostly Rwanda. The chaos could provide cover to any number of transnational-armed groups in the region and embolden regional leaders considering their own bids for third terms.

With the horrors of the civil war barely in the country's rear view mirror, many Burundians believe that outside intervention is the only solution – as it was a decade ago when international and regional leaders dragged the warring parties to a cessation of hostilities with the signing of the Arusha Accord.

In addition to barring any president from running for a third term, the agreement stipulates ethnic quotas in Burundi’s military and police forces in an attempt to prevent any future of ethnic violence.

“You have to have outside intervention to have negotiations or to deescalate any kind of tensions in Burundi,” says Yolande Bouka, a researcher in the conflict prevention and risk analysis division at the Nairobi office of the Institute for Security Studies.

“Ten years post-transition we find ourselves needing interventions.”

But so far the only outcome of Wednesday’s meeting has been the announcement of a regional summit on May 13 to discuss the growing crisis. That news was immediately followed by the government's arrest and release of a top opposition leader.

Now the question here is: Will the regional community again come to Burundi’s help before things escalate further. 

“It was very difficult,” Thierry Vircoulon, head of the International Crisis Group’s Central Africa project says of the previous efforts put in by regional countries to bring peace to Burundi. “...It has been a lot of effort to convince a very tiny African nation to make peace.”

Ensuring stability

The EAC does not want Burundi's election disagreement to shatter the region's hard-won stability.

“Burundian authorities have a regional responsibility not to create a regional refugee crisis, so you should do the best to deescalate the tension at the moment and find an amicable solution with the opposition,” says Mr. Vircoulon, summing up the message he believes the foreign ministers delivered to President Nkurunziza.

To the west of Burundi is the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), whose eastern region is host to a plethora of armed groups and a largely permanent refugee population.To the north is a stable Rwanda, two decades out of its horrific genocide but under the heavy hand of President Paul Kagame.

And to the east is Tanzania, which does not face the same fragile ethnic tinderbox but is heading into a contentious election season amid a narrowing of the political space, a corruption scandal, and a growing Islamist militant threat on the coast, says Ms. Bouka.

“If you have a massive influx of refugees, you’re adding strain to an already tenuous situation,” she explains. Rwanda, which has received the bulk of the refugees,“has more than it can sustain for a long period of time.”

The refugee crisis could also create security problems, Vircoulon says, with hundreds of thousands of refugees dealing with food and aid shortages as well as the potential activation of rebel groups, like the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu rebel group based in eastern DRC.

Rwanda’s foreign minister has already issued warnings amid allegations that the FDLR is finding a safe haven amid Burundi’s chaos. Though her comments sparked speculation that Rwanda was laying the groundwork for an intervention, analysts have dismissed the possibility of an imminent intervention because there has not yet been proof that the FDLR is in Burundi.

Mediating a region

One of the hurdles to overcome in negotiating some form of compromise is finding the right mediator. Potential players like the Catholic Church and civil society organizations have sided with the opposition, and there is no entity or person left that both sides can trust. 

The International Crisis Group pointed out the lack of an internal mediator in an April report that warned of a type of chaos now taking place.  

US Secretary of State John Kerry accused Mr. Nkurunziza of violating the Arusha Accord, a sentiment echoed on Thursday by the African Union, who urged the president to drop his plans of running.

But critics agree that the EAC is best suited to negotiate a compromise because it has some crucial leverage: the ability to offer or withdraw greater integration with the rest of the region.

“Burundi doesn’t want to be the odd man out. You've had deals to harmonize trade and custom rules, railroads being built… There have been really tremendous efforts to integrate the politics of the countries,” she explains. “If the EAC was willing to use that leverage, it could relatively have more long-term impact on Burundi than pressures from Western countries.”

The EAC has its own complications though, including two members -- Rwanda and Uganda -- that will hold presidential elections in the next two years. Both Presidents Kagame and Yoweri Museveni might run for third terms, which are unconstitutional, and these leaders may be cautious about coming down hard on Burundi.

They’re also reticent to allow the Arusha Agreement, which regional and international leaders invested years in cementing, to fall apart. For all the effort, it’s a fragile agreement.

“If you see that one of the partners of the Arusha Agreement has turned its back on it, then it breaks the peace treaty,” says Bouka.

“Worst case scenario is ... consider it null and void. If other actors believe that’s the case and if they have the capability they could decide to go back to armed conflict.”

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