No More Talking of Rebels in Burundi

This week an appeals judge in Burundi reduced the sentence of RFI radio journalist Hassan Ruvakuki to three years in prison; he was originally sentenced to life. After two trials, the court ultimately found him guilty of working with a criminal group, but he continues to claim he was arrested for investigating reports that a new rebel group had emerged along Burundi's border with Tanzania.

It is not good to talk of rebels in Burundi these days.

The government—which has been dominated since the first post-transition democratic elections of 2005 by the CNDD-FDD party, itself formerly the largest Burundian rebel movement of the same name—wants to leave behind the country’s rebellious past and look to a brighter future.

Key Conclusions

  • Unfortunately, the fact that neither the government nor the extra-parliamentary opposition wants to talk of a rebellion does not mean that there is no more violence in the country, and the rebel ghosts may not be where we most expect them. Instead, political violence seems to have become a fact of life in Burundi, moving the rebels of yesterday into the zero-sum political game we are now seeing.
  • It is not sufficient for the international community to focus on brokering and implementing ceasefire agreements so that powerful rebel groups can quickly be registered as political parties and participate in subsequent post-transition elections.
  • More thought and resources should be invested early on in supporting the transformation of rebel movements into political parties that can transcend former ethnic, regional and other divides and have the ability and will to engage in genuine multiparty politics.
  • If measures are not taken, “rebel mentality” politics will continue to haunt post-conflict countries and a “winner takes all” approach to elections risk continuing to be a source of division and conflict rather than promoting democratic practice (and protecting the rights of minorities)
  • More thinking also needs to happen on what effective longer-term political “accompanying” mechanisms—both national and international—could be.

Analysis

Burundi has come a long way from when it was the topic of regular UN Security Council meetings and host to international peacekeepers from the African Union (AMIB) and the United Nations (ONUB) in 2004-2006 following a twelve-year civil war. Part of the reason the newly-elected government asked for a hasty departure for the UN peacekeepers at the time was to appear as a “normalized” and safe country open for business.

Burundi has since joined the East African Community, and Bujumbura was chosen to host the headquarters of the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR). Burundi even began contributing to peace and security on its own continent by sending its own troops as peacekeepers with the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) starting in late 2007. Burundi has come full circle.

At the October 2012 Geneva Conference of Burundi’s Development Partners, the international community rewarded this significant progress in restoring peace and stability in the country by committing more than $2 billion to accelerate Burundi’s development progress and poverty reduction. They recognized progress in economic growth rates, the delivery of basic social services to the population (health and education), and the “doing business” climate. To top it all off, over Christmas a consortium of foreign investors announced that it will construct an $80 million shopping complex in Bujumbura starting early 2013 to be complete in the next three to five years.

No wonder the words “rebel” and “rebellion” have become unpopular in Burundi.

The most deadly security incident since the disputed 2010 elections was a September 18, 2011 attack in a bar in Gatumba, just outside the capital Bujumbura and on the road to the border with the DRC, which left 39 people dead. While the government initially blamed the attack on “bandits,” the media immediately pointed to former FNL rebel leader Agathon Rwasa and spoke of the possible emergence of a new rebel group.

A few days later, the head of the Burundian national intelligence service went on record accusing Agathon Rwasa and the coalition of opposition parties named ADC-Ikibiri (which includes the FNL) that had boycotted the 2010 elections citing intimidation and fraud. But ADC-Ikibiri and Agathon Rwasa issued separate statements denying any involvement in the Gatumba attack.

A couple of months later when the UN independent Panel of Experts on the DRC (S/2011/738) accused Agathon Rwasa and other ADC-Ikibiri member Alexis Sinduhije of forming a new Burundian rebellion in the DRC South Kivu, they both again issued separate statements denying these accusations. They both instead claimed being simple members of the political opposition with no link to acts of violence taking place in Burundi. Yet the Burundian armed forces have carried out joint military with the Congolese army to track FNL elements in neighboring Congo. Adding to the confusion, in September 2012 an ex-FNL officer announced the resumption of war against the government, but an FNL spokesman immediately denied any intention of the movement to take up arms.

Unfortunately, the fact that neither the government nor the extra-parliamentary opposition wants to talk of a rebellion does not mean that there is no more violence in the country, and the rebel ghosts may not be where we most expect them. Instead, political violence seems to have become a fact of life in Burundi, moving the rebels of yesterday into the zero-sum political game we are now seeing.

While President Nkurunziza had in mid-2011 called on opposition leaders to return from abroad to contribute to the reconstruction of the country and prepare to compete in the 2015 elections, his government has responded to the resurgence of armed groups and criticism of civil society by violent repression and intimidation--and the narrowing of the political space--rather than political dialogue and openness towards the opposition.

In its latest report of November 2011 (S/2011/751), the UN Secretary-General had reported that “the country has remained free of large-scale violence but continues to experience a disturbing underlying trend of apparent extrajudicial killings and other violent crimes.” The small remaining UN political office on the ground (BNUB), whose mandate is due to expire in February 2013, documented 46 reported cases of extrajudicial, arbitrary or summary executions and/or politically motivated killings (most of the victims were known to have been affiliated with a political party), as well as 29 cases of torture between January 1 and October 15, 2011, compared with 40 such killings and 30 cases of torture for all of 2010.

With the CNDD-FDD retaining the presidency and a large majority in Parliament (made greater by the opposition’s boycott of the 2010 elections), Burundi is increasingly looking like a de facto single-party state or what could be termed a “one-party democracy.” But Burundi is not the only one in its region, and while it may be moving away from genuine multiparty political systems, it will likely continue to get donor support as long as there is no “large-scale violence” in Burundi and the country consents to important sacrifices as a major contributor to AMISOM.

The lesson from the post-conflict transition in Burundi may be that it is not sufficient for the international community, starting with the UN, to focus on facilitating the brokering and implementation of ceasefire agreements with the most powerful rebel groups (and disarming and demobilizing their combatants) so that they can quickly be registered as political parties and participate in subsequent post-transition elections – still too often a benchmark for the disengagement of the international community.

Instead, more thought and resources should be invested at a sufficiently early point in the negotiation process in supporting the transformation of armed movements into functional political parties (and providing sustainable reintegration options to their combatants) that can transcend former ethnic and regional divides and have the ability and will to engage in genuine multiparty politics. The fact that the two major rebel movements kept their war names when registering as political parties CNDD-FDD and FNL (the latter only dropping its prefix PALIPEHUTU due to its ethnic connotation contrary to the constitution) is also highly symbolic.

Short of that necessary transformational process, “rebel mentality” politics will continue to come back and haunt post-conflict countries like Burundi. This means the “winners” who hold political and economic power will continue to abuse it (and undermining good governance efforts), rejecting any criticism or signs of dissent, including from journalists; while the “losers” will continue to be drawn to violence even if the condition for re-starting a rebellion (including the backing of powerful states in some cases) are no longer there. Part of the problem is that the “winner takes all” approach to elections can become a source of further divisions and conflicts rather than promote democratic practice (and protect the rights of minorities), and is used by autocratic governments to acquire a semblance of democratic legitimacy.

More thinking also needs to happen on what effective longer-term political “accompanying” mechanisms could be put in place beyond the transition period and the first few post-conflict elections. In Burundi, there was no formal follow-up mechanism to the South African Facilitation of the Burundi Peace process and short-lived successor mechanism Partnership for Peace (PBB) in Burundi after 2009, and during the 2010 electoral period. While multiple national and international bodies existed—including the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) Burundi configuration, the Group of Special Envoys, and the Regional Initiative—they have not proved effective as conflict resolution mechanisms at the time of the opposition’s boycott of the 2010 elections, nor since.

Arthur Boutellis is a Research Fellow at the International Peace Institute.

About the photo: Agathon Rwasa on the day of the registration of the FNL as a political party,  April 2009.  Photo credit: Sylvain Liechti



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