Burundi is back in the spotlight of the world’s media and the agenda of the United Nations Security Council. As recently as two years ago, the country was considered a success story in peacebuilding circles, but now the news is firmly of a negative variety. The UN is trying to prevent a new civil war in a region still haunted by the Rwandan genocide. How did success so quickly turn to failure?
Following the re-election of President Nkurunziza for a contentious third term in July this year, the Burundian crisis has itself entered a third phase. The first was the 2014 dispute around electoral preparations. The government and opposition disagreed on almost everything, from the composition of the local electoral commissions to the registration of voters, stripping it of legitimacy from the start.
The second phase involved street protests against Nkurunziza’s pursuit of the presidency in April this year. Demonstrations in the capital Bujumbura quickly turned violent, with confrontations between the government and a coalition of political opposition, civil society organizations, and the Catholic Church. A failed coup radicalized all stakeholders, and international mediation attempts in June and July only managed to delay elections without substantially improving the conditions in which they would be held.
The third phase of the crisis—armed confrontation—corresponded with the third-term mandate granted to Nkurunziza. Nightly police raids and execution-style operations in districts of Bujumbura hosting the regime’s opponents have led to daily disappearances and discoveries of dead bodies.
There is now a dictatorial atmosphere within the country: the opposition and most civil society leaders are in exile; international non-government organizations are under surveillance; independent media have been shut down, with about 100 Burundian journalists—most of the profession—leaving the country; and the government is reviving rhetoric from the civil war of 1993-2005. Meanwhile, isolation is growing: most international donors have suspended aid programs and the largest among them, the European Union, is looking to follow suit. The United States, EU, and African Union have implemented targeted sanctions, while relations with Rwanda and Belgium have also been strained.
Currently, both the president and the population are living in fear. Concerned about assassination, Nkurunziza is no longer residing in Bujumbura, nor his hometown of Ngozi, and the Burundian people are scared to speak freely or leave home after dark. This fear is driving many from the country: according to the UN’s refugee agency, about 215,000 have fled in eight months. A national crisis has become a regional one, and Burundi may soon be facing a protracted civil war, or at the very least a new coup attempt. A genocide-in-the making is the worst-case scenario, although this ignores the fact that the opposition to the president is multiethnic.
After Arusha: Lack of Support Dooms Agreement
The growing conflict could reduce what was a long and hard-fought peacebuilding effort to nothing. It took two African presidents—Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and South Africa’s Nelson Mandela—and four years to negotiate the Arusha peace agreement that ended Burundi’s civil war; it took eight to convince all armed groups to lay down their weapons and accept a democratic political system. Burundi has remained on the UN peacebuilding commission agenda throughout this process, so how could things have again reached this stage?
To begin with, challenging term limits is highly dangerous in post-conflict settings, especially amid a long dispute between the ruling party and opposition. The present crisis therefore has roots in the 2010 polls, which were a logistical success but a political failure. The opposition only participated in the communal elections and boycotted the others, and the government launched a repressive post-electoral campaign that forced its main opponents out of the country. Against this backdrop, the ambiguous legality of Nkurunziza’s candidacy sparked a concerned political opposition to turn to the streets.
In truth, the success of Burundi’s peaceful transition was overstated to begin with. The implementation of the Arusha agreement was both unfinished and undesired by the government. The ruling party never genuinely adhered to its principles and had not been part of the negotiations process to begin with. It even blocked the implementation of several conditions, including, most prominently, those related to the creation of a special tribunal to judge the crimes of the civil war. Consequently, nobody has answered for these and Burundi has failed to move past them.
In addition, foreign observers considered the peaceful integration of militiamen into state security services proof of unity and the depoliticization of the security sector. But integration did not equal unity: parallel chains of command were established in order to discreetly shift the balance of power and maintain political and ethnic control over it. The transformation of leaders of the armed groups into elected politicians has not entrenched democratic values, nor good governance. These individuals quickly became corrupt and failed to improve the living conditions of the population, especially the urban youth who mobilized against Nkurunziza this year.
The countries and organizations that guarantee the Arusha agreement paid little attention to these developments. They were complacent with the post-conflict regime despite its rising corruption, poor human rights record, and authoritarian behavior. They turned a blind eye to these dangerous patterns and continued to promote the narrative of success that was convenient for all stakeholders; it pleased the Burundian government and justified the political disengagement of others.
The guarantors thus ignored all early warning signs and sometimes even sent the wrong signals to the government. Most notably, the EU doubled its development assistance to Burundi in 2014, despite bilateral dialogue not making any progress and electoral preparations already being problematic at the time. The UN Security Council also accepted a reduced political role in Burundi when the electoral dispute was already developing.
These failures have been compounded by a politically inadequate response to the current crisis. As the civil war was ended by an agreement negotiated by African leaders, Western interests have again waited for a regional solution. Unfortunately, times have changed: South Africa has disengaged from Burundi and its present government seems disinterested in preserving Mandela’s legacy. The East African Community (EAC) has been mandated to find a solution but is too divided and ill-equipped to deal with political crisis. In addition, too many national leaders within EAC feel some affinity with the Burundian regime; its chief mediator, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, is himself facing a potential electoral crisis in early 2016.
The return of authoritarian and corrupt governance to Burundi has been made possible because the guarantors of the Arusha agreement did not follow through on their commitments. They ignored early warnings about the return of authoritarian governance and that peace was beginning to unravel. Peacebuilding requires a long-term political engagement to have any degree of success. This is something that those seeking an end to the current Burundian crisis must bear in mind if they are to achieve more than a brief interruption of the country’s fighting and instability.
Thierry Vircoulon is Project Director for Central Africa at the International Crisis Group.