Interview with Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, SRSG and Head of the UN Office in Burundi (BNUB)

“I’ve been in Burundi only five months, but what I have seen so far is rather reassuring,” said Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, SRSG and Head of the UN Office in Burundi (BNUB).

“When I first got into Bujumbura, the situation was grimmer,” he said, referring to the lack of political dialogue since the 2010 elections, which were rife with violence and intimidation.

“There was definitely tension in the air, suggesting that if nothing was done to reduce the level of tension… there was little hope for peace and peaceful prospects for the 2015 elections.”

Mr. Onanga-Anyanga said a workshop is planned for February for government representatives and opposition leaders to draw lessons from the violence.

Mr. Onanga-Anyanga also discussed the Arusha Accords, which were key in establishing “clear rules for everyone, so that there is a leveled playing field where political actors in Burundi disagree, but on ideas, not based on ethnicity.”

And while transitional justice was part of the accords, Mr. Onanga-Anyanga said it is “long overdue.”

Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world, though the government is actively engaged in poverty reduction, and a recent Geneva conference with development partners collected more than $2 billion then expected. “The commitment made by the partners was also met by a commitment by Burundi itself, which was to ensure that they would put the house in order,” he said.

Mr. Onanga-Anyanga discussed the level of UN engagement in Burundi, saying that it’s termination would first be discussed with the Council and the government of Burundi with the advice of the Secretary-General.

“But should BNUB leave the UN as a family of institutions, we’ll remain in Burundi to provide the most needed vital support for its socio-economic development,” he said.

The interview was conducted by Warren Hoge, IPI Senior Adviser for External Relations.

Listen to interview (or download mp3):


Warren Hoge : Our guest today in the Global Observatory is Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of UN Operation in Burundi, known as BNUB. Parfait Onanga was named to the post in June and took up his duties in Bujumbura in August.

He is a familiar figure in the UN community of New York because over the past decade he has served in a number of highly visible positions working for the deputy Secretary-General and presidents of the General Assembly. His fingerprints are on a lot of initiatives and reforms that the UN has undertaken during that period, including the Peacebuilding Commission, which figures prominently in his new assignment since Burundi was one of the first two countries to go on to the agenda of the commission.

Parfait, welcome, and let me ask you first of all, Burundi has a Parliament right now in which the opposition basically has no representatives due to an electoral boycott in the 2010 elections. Obviously, there is an effort underway right now to open up political dialogue and to broaden the political space. I wanted to ask you whether you are encouraged or discouraged by the progress the country is making in trying to have a real political dialogue —and this all of course is leading up to the crucial 2015 elections. Do you see what’s going on now the lessening of the political space as endangering the integrity of those elections?

Parfait Onanga: Thank you very much Warren. I must say I’ve been in Burundi only five months but what I have seen so far is rather reassuring. When I first got into Bujumbura, the situation was grimmer. There was no dialogue whatsoever between the government, and the opposition was still challenging the legitimacy of the current CNDD (National Council for the Defense of Democracy), the majority, and the government, and they would simply challenge everything the government would do. There was definitely tension in the air and suggesting that if nothing was done to reduce the level of tension between these two major actors, there was little hope for peace and peaceful prospects for the 2015 elections.

So part of my mandate and my job there has been indeed to convey the concerns of the international community and invite all stakeholders to consider that Burundi has no other option but to strengthen its democratic institutions, and therefore the place for democracy to develop and grow and be strengthened is within its institutions such as Parliament, the Senate, and the government.

I have sent this message to the government, but also discussed this with the opposition. To the opposition, the main message was to say a call for magnanimity—there is no question about the fact that the international community did bless the outcome of the 2010 elections. We did consider—and when I say we, including the UN—that, despite the few shortcomings that we identified, they were not to the level of putting into question the entire electoral process, and therefore we decided that these elections will broadly fair and therefore should be considered as successfully organize.

So having said that, we turn to the opposition, and we have been engaging with the opposition and calling on the opposition to understand that also democracy is a process. Therefore, their responsibility goes beyond access to power. They have a force that counts in the life and strengthening and development of democracy in Burundi, and therefore their place is definitely to be part and not outside of the normal democratic process.

So I am reassured to see that these messages are fairly well received today, and that both the government and opposition are talking to each other more, and that our role as a facilitator for such a dialogue is welcomed. At the end of February, we will be holding an important workshop bringing together the government representatives at the highest level, opposition leaders and including those who were in exile to do exactly 2 things: one will be to review the 2010 elections – review what went wrong, and also what was all done. And from there, draw the lessons so that we can identify a set of key elements which could form part of a roadmap that political actors in Burundi could consider as something that they want to see embedded in the electoral law within the Commission Electorale Nationale Indépendante (Independent National Electoral Commission), which would be responsible for organizing the next elections, so that we have for the next round of elections in 2015 fair, transparent, and just elections.

WH: Burundi is one of the poorest countries in the world. The government right now is actively engaged in the elaboration in a new poverty reduction strategy paper, or in UN speak, a PRSP2, to replace the first PRSP that had been adopted in 2006 following the post-transitional national elections. They just held a meeting at the end of October–Burundi did with all its partners–and they collected more money, more than $2 billion, then they expected to. I wanted to ask you what has happened in the aftermath of that. Has that encouraged the Burundians to pursue and define an anti-poverty program that can reduce the levels of poverty within Burundi?

PO: Absolutely. The Geneva conference, as you mentioned it, Warren, was a real success. Burundi’s partners came in big numbers to make a statement to Burundi that they believe in Burundi’s commitment to reshape its social and economic situation and to launch a very effective development strategy tackling extreme poverty, and the assuring an era of growth and shared prosperity.

But this is not going to be an easy undertaking. In Geneva, the commitment made by the partners was also met by a commitment by Burundi itself, which was to ensure that they would put the house in order, put it together with clear governance mechanisms which was enable them to manage any assets they may receive from the partners, but also their own assets so that in this compact Burundi would be a much more dynamic and vibrant society which would pull out of poverty its own people. So Geneva was definitely an excellent opportunity for Burundi also to try to rebrand itself and show to the world that poverty could be defeated.

WH: In a society like Burundi’s, coming out of extraordinary violence more than a decade ago, the subject of transitional justice is always important. As I understand it, the two things we are talking about institutionally in Burundi are 1) a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and 2) a special tribunal. Has there been progress in creating those two bodies, and are those two bodies being created in line with international standards?

PO: Transitional justice in Burundi is long overdue. It was part of the Arusha Accords in 2000 and has ever since been on the table of the government without fully being implemented. Today, we can say that there is progress. A draft law has been submitted by the government to the Parliament, and we have reviewed that law, we believe the law as it stands now does not breach any international standards but could be improved in such a way that it becomes truly comprehensive and addresses all concerns from both the Burundian people and from Burundi’s partners. It is in that light that the United Nations conveyed to the government of Burundi its comments with review to seeing that proposed TRC would meet fully those standards so that it could be a tool for not only revisiting Burundi’s troubled past but also fighting impunity in such a way that future generations may not be again victims of the crimes of the past.

In doing so, we also took note of the fact in the current draft law, justice is not permanent. We have discussed this matter, our comments do raise this issue, and we did understand from the government that there was no intention on their part to overlook justice-related matters, but they wanted to address in a kind of staggered manner, provided that there was a clear understanding on both sides—meaning the government and us—that there won’t be any amnesties, that all crimes that could be considered as crimes against humanity—as crimes of genocide or sexual abuses crimes would also not be entitled to any amnesty. So with this broad understanding, I believe there is still room for improvement, and we hope that the views we did submit the government of Burundi would be fairly considered so that moving forward the UN, which has been Burundi’s partner for a long time, will continue to support the country as it is really engaged to tackle these extremely sensitive aspects of peace consolidation in Burundi.

WH: Parfait, in our discussion about persisting political divisions, am I right in thinking that the political divisions and indeed the violence that we talked about is no longer ethnic—it’s no longer the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority, it’s for other reasons, which doesn’t make it acceptable. Am I correct in thinking that it is a measure of progress in Burundi that they appear to have overcome this desperate ethnic division that plagued the country for so long?

PO: Warren, your assessment is correct, and this is a welcomed development in Burundi. Our efforts today should be to really encourage the Burundians to establish clear rules for everyone so that there is a leveled playing field where political actors in Burundi disagree, but on ideas, not based on ethnicity. And this is really the game changer that the Arusha Accords really brought to this country.

WH: There is a group with a rather dramatic name in Burundi called the Anti-Corruption Brigade. I noted that the World Bank’s rankings have shown some modest progress for Burundi moving it from 169th in the world–this is the “ease in doing business” ranking–to 159th. Can you tell me what’s being done by the government, and maybe even by the UN, to reduce the level of corruption in Burundian life?

PO: Warren, this is definitely a very important issue for the reasons that we have already discussed. Burundi is a poor nation, and I would say that every franc—that is the local currency—every dollar, every asset that they produce themselves or may receive from their international partners is of critical importance to ensure that it is used for its intended objectives. There shouldn’t be any complacency in tackling the issue of corruption in Burundi, and we are closely supporting Burundi’s efforts to address corruption.

We are pleased to say that it is a matter that has gained momentum and is where the head of state himself on the forefront showing leadership in the fight against corruption as reflected by his zero-policy commitment. The number of instruments has been put in place, including the brigade that you just mentioned. There is also a court and the recent report from the brigade showing that more and more Burundians are gaining confidence with more and more state officials being brought to justice. So this in itself I think is an encouraging sign, and that is why I believe doing business did reflect that in the recent report.

But it doesn’t mean that the problem is solved. It only means that more is required to continue to fight this discord, because as long as Burundi’s assets will be misused and go in the wrong hands, it will fragilize all efforts that a country could make to really make sure that its actions are directed to fighting major concerns of the country that is poverty.

So we will be continuing our efforts, and we will be urging the government in Burundi to be more aggressive, and I have myself been in contact with the minister in charge of good governance. I must say here: he is a tremendous leader in this field, he is taking this matter very seriously, and is becoming, I think in Burundi, the face of the fight against corruption. He will need our support.

In addition to the political commitments by head of state and the minister in charge of good governance, I must say Burundi is blessed for having an extraordinary vibrant civil society. Civil society organizations in Burundi are championing the fight against corruption, and this is discussed in the open, in the media, in meetings with the senior leadership and with Burundi’s partners. I believe together with the government, such a commitment and dedication to ensuring that the Burundi preforms better and every single asset of Burundi is used for a good cause, I think gives us all hope that Burundi can make corruption history in our lifetime.

WH: Finally, there are some people in Burundi who believe that Burundi should disengage from the United Nations -that determination will be made in the year to come. How will the UN assess whether or not Burundi is in a state where it can go on its own that way and what will the UN’s own attitude towards this desire to disengage be?

PO: This will definitely not be the first time that Burundi and the UN discuss the modality and format of the UN engagement in their country. We’ve been in Burundi for a long time in different capacities, from a simple political office (UNOB) in 1993 to the configuration we’re having today in BNUB. There have been many different considerations, which, of course, we’re always in opportunity for both the UN and the Burundian government to assess and re-adjust the nature, the size, the configuration of the UN engagement in Burundi.

I’m not seeing this new request as if Burundi wanted to get rid of the UN. I would rather say that it must be Burundi’s assessment, that the time has come for us all to review the nature of our operational partnerships, and should BNUB come to an end based on the benchmarks that the Security Council adopted in July last year, which we will discuss in close cooperation with the host country, the government of Burundi, there will come a time when both the Council and the government of Burundi with the advice of the Secretary-General will come to the conclusion that the time has come to move on to a new type of engagement. But should BNUB leave the UN as a family of institutions, we’ll remain in Burundi to provide the most needed vital support for its socio-economic development.

WH: Parfait Onanga, thank you so much for talking with the Global Observatory.