Burundi: No guns at the table
At the start of the second round of Burundi peace talks in Arusha on 12 July, concerns lingered over their efficacy after five political parties boycotted the summit over a conflict about who should participate.
Mediated by the East African Community and facilitated by Tanzania’s former president Benjamin Mkapa, the talks are an attempt to engage stakeholders in the ongoing crisis that started in April 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to seek a third term.
Since then, more than a quarter of a million people have fled to neighbouring countries and hundreds have been killed. Brutal repression of civil society and opposition has fuelled a militarisation of the protest movement, as illustrated by routine night battles and the emergence of new rebel groups.
Michel, a protester now exiled in Rwanda, says he has lost hope: “Bujumbura’s regime had different opportunities to dialogue with the opposition and has refused each time, so why would it now? It’s acting in bad faith.”
Ghent University researcher Tomas Van Acker says the talks could be a step towards something bigger: “Given the enormous amount of mistrust in the process by both sides, it’s difficult to be optimistic. But it’s still an important step after months of total stalemate.”
In May talks, attendance in Arusha included a government delegation and some opposition groups, but not the exiled coalition Conseil National pour le Respect de l’Accord d’Arusha pour la Paix et la Réconciliation au Burundi et de l’Etat de Droit (CNARED). Parties within this alliance were invited but some declined to attend, citing the need for CNARED to be represented as an entity.
For anti-third-term civil society leader Pacifique Nininahazwe, the government must be open to negotiation: “If the mediation wants to find a comprehensive solution, they have to invite all armed movements. In 2000, it was already a mistake to ignore armed movements in talks from the start. We lost a lot of time.”
Armed groups include the Forces Républicaines du Burundi (FOREBU), composed of 2015 coup plotters and army defectors, and RED Tabara, boasting a base of demobilised soldiers and oppositionist youth. Both have claimed to target police positions in the capital, and FOREBU is believed to be behind attacks on military barracks last December. The group claims its new chief is General Godefroid Niyombare, leader of the 2015 putsch who is on the run since its failure.
Rebel sources say they represent distinct movements, although they share the same objective: removing Nkurunziza from power. Van Acker says they lack “the striking power to mount large-scale offensives and destabilise the military,” due in part to the “efficiency of repression and infiltration by the government forces.” The government has dismissed rebel groups as a farce.
Armed opposition coincides with tit-for-tat assassinations of military officers, stirring fears of army fracture and all-out war. Renegade generals claimed responsibility for killing Lieutenant Colonel Darius Ikurakure, a senior army figure considered loyal to the regime, this March. Thereafter, officers from various political and ethnic backgrounds have been shot dead, some apparently in revenge for the killing of loyalists.
Based on the findings of an African Union (AU) mission to Burundi, both sides have contributed to violence, but government is responsible for a much larger share of abuses. The AU accused the ruling party’s youth league, Imbonerakure, of infiltrating police and working like a militia, in parallel with security organs, to arrest, intimidate and kill civilians. ●