Beyond the headlines, what are the prospects for peace in Burundi?

By AT editor - 26 February 2016 at 5:40 pm
Beyond the headlines, what are the prospects for peace in Burundi?

AP Photo

The Burundi crisis remains one of chief concerns for fellow African nations, as well deep diplomatic engagement from United Nations. Intent on winning a peaceful resolution in the East African nation, the UN has achieved agreement from Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza’s in recent days to release over 2000 prisoners and restart peace talks with opposition figures.

While this is an important step, it’s also a reality there are deeper dynamics at play that have not yet won widespread coverage. Understanding these dynamics helps understand beneath the daily headlines why African nations and the broader international community is so intent to not let a brokered peace deal slip from its grasp. Let’s begin with an a look at the UN.

United Nations

As Rwandan journalist Didas Gasana opined ‘Burundi is Africa’s Syria’. The parallels between the two national conflicts are pronounced, and an examination of Syria’s crisis offers an insight into the difficulty of the UN’s task.The UN already attentive to the instability in Libya and ongoing upheaval caused by Al Shabab and Boko Haram (as well as attending to the broader decline of democratic process on the continent) means a en masse fleeing of Burundians from their country would further stretch UN resources already focused on the challenge of the Syrian conflict and its European emigration crisis.

Further, Nkurunziza’s unwillingness to allow African Union peacekeepers into the country – for which led Egyptian Ambassador Amr Aboulatta to say he was in “total denial” as to the severity of the situation – signifies another challenging hurdle for the peace talks to surmount. One need only look at the difficulties Bashar Al Assad’s intent to remain Syrian President has caused for the UN and international community in seeking to end the civil war notwithstanding the recent ‘cessation of hostilities‘ agreement. Further, there is the question that even if the cessation is achieved, how long will it last, and shall all parties have sufficient incentive to maintain it?

While some factions of the Syrian war and the wider international community have sincerely wished for a lasting peace to be won earlier this month, Assad’s declarations he would ultimately win the war – and pursue who he deems ‘terrorists’ even in the ceasire –  means the prospects of a lasting ceasefire appear limited. Therefore, though Burundi is not yet at this stage, Nkurunziza’s brinkmanship offers a chilling vision of how the crisis could yet worsen.

The grim reality is like Assad the ultimate path to peace for Burundi may involve Nkurunziza’s resignation. Calls by Burundian Vice President Gervais Rufyikiri domestically, and Former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan for Nkurunziza’s to do so affirms such a suggestion is not without support either domestically or internationally.  And herein lies the chief challenge for African and the United Nations. In order to achieve a peaceful solution the relevant parties must all sincerely desire peace; and sincerely desire it now.

There is good reason to think the ruling CNND-FDD does not seek it. Accordingly, though it’s been a long time since its days as the Organisation of African Union, the African Union nonetheless remains limited in what pressure it can exert on Burundi as the AU’s aspirations to maintain and grow democracy on the African continent are clearly facing a turbulent era ahead.

So, in absence of a domestic effort or progress by the AU and UN where could a game changer be found in this crisis? The absence of regional nations and a US president looms large.

Neighbouring powers

While South African President Jacob Zuma shall take the lead on a Burundian delegation of 5 African heads of state on behalf of the AU, Burundi’s fellow East African nations of Uganda and Rwanda also remain a chief factor in wider East African stability. While previously Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni may have stood the best chance of influencing Burundi’s government, recent criticism of his role, his absence from Zuma’s committee, and news of his own political troubles following Uganda’s February 20 election suggests a diminished influence.  Then there is Rwanda.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame is aware of his nation’s similarity to Burundi – especially as it concerns their similar Hutu and Tutsi ethnic demographics – and has signified his recognition of the potential for peril in Burundi’s future. Writing on Twitter Saturday February 20 Kagame said “On the situation of Burundi as an Af’can and esp Rw’dese I have to painstakingly conclude #History is awash with lessons but little learning”. While Kagame may wish for Burundi to learn from Rwanda’s history, Kagame now a lesser figure as a result of his own presidency. Though he once criticised Nkurunziza for seeking a third term, his own decision to run for a third term under new rules in 2017 – potentially extending his presidency till 2034 – signify Kagame’s capacity to help restore the democratic health of Burundi is beleaguered by his actions in Rwanda.

Yet, notwithstanding potential hypocrisy, Kagame has much at stake in Burundi finding peace.

Though it is difficult to gauge Kagame’s popularity – and it’s true Rwanda’s many immense improvements during his tenure mean it could be very strong – the accusations of media suppression in the country represents a very dangerous combination when viewed alongside his failure to pass power to a new leader. This is not least because as a bordering nation to Burundi – having already accepted thousands upon thousands of refugees – the task of resettling refugees in other African countries (amidst accusations training fighters to return to Burundi) while also maintaining domestic order as Kagame seeks a third term now looks an increasingly dangerous task. This is especially so as the failure of manage the refugee crisis is a security challenge in its own right to Rwanda.

Therefore, whether from a growing refugee crisis or the distaste for East African president seeking third terms arriving at Rwandan borders, Kagame now has more incentive than ever to shelve his criticism of Burundi’s president and instead work to restore its government. There also remains another figure who could now make a greater entrance into the peace effort.


The ultimate response may be best won by seeking the participation of the major powers. As the United States has petitioned prior for the AU to dispatch peacekeepers to the region, it may now be time is seeks a more influential role in the crisis. The failure to play a greater role in preventing the Rwandan genocide has haunted Bill Clinton, Obama’s predecessor in the Oval Office. While “the demands on any [US] president are immense, and conflicting pressures are legion” it is clear Obama’s influence will now be diminished domestically, but having thus far been held to achieve little in Africa – and yet notched up significant diplomatic deals elsewhere late in his presidency his ambition remains to conclude his tenure with a strong performance.

Just as Russia almost overnight was able to largely change the dynamics of the Syrian war, so too could a US president intent to avoid a ‘lame duck’ status – and perhaps weary his record on African foreign policy is not as strong as his predecessor – offer a greater show of strength and support in these last months of his presidency. While sanctions have been instituted more action could be taken. Not least because with historic Iran and Cuba deals having recently been done, the time may be opportune for the first African-American occupant of the Oval Office to seek in a lasting peace deal in Africa. Ultimately, for Obama and all other leaders involved the failure to achieve peace in this latest effort is less a question of legacy than simple humanity –  as each time an effort for peace in Burundi is not achieved – the risk remains of its total failure.

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