The most charitable interpretation one can put on Benjamin Mkapa’s Burundi peace talks is that they are a desperate grope in the dark for a resolution to the year-long crisis. The danger of such desperation though, is that it might do no more than further weaken President Pierre Nkurunziza’s political opponents.
After months of delay, the dialogue – which is being run by Mkapa as facilitator for the East African Community kicked off last Saturday.
Appropriately enough, it took place in Arusha, Tanzania, where the first peace agreement that launched democracy in Burundi was signed 16 years ago.
Nkurunziza’s government had long refused to participate in the talks, saying there was nothing to talk about. Nkurunziza had been legitimately re-elected last July and so all his opponents should be doing is preparing to contest the next scheduled elections in 2020, his people said.
His strongest opponents, gathered in a coalition of many parties called the National Council for the Restoration of the Arusha Accords and the Rule of Law, (CNARED), sharply disagreed. They insisted he had been illegitimately elected because he had breached the two-term limit in the constitution and the Arusha agreements by running for a third term. So they demanded that he should stand down from power and that new elections should be held without him.
Eventually the government agreed to participate, but only on condition that CNARED did not do so, as a coalition. Even then, Nkurunziza’s people made clear they would only go to Arusha to re-state their position that negotiations were not necessary.
A desperate Mkapa, however, clutched at this straw and launched the dialogue, inviting a host of interested parties. This included most of the CNARED members, but only as individual entities – and not CNARED itself.
CNARED protested loudly at being excluded as a coalition, and condemned Mkapa for attempting to ‘debauch’ its members by inviting them individually. Some were indeed ‘debauched’ – including Léonard Nyangoma, a former leader of CNARED and current president of CNDD (National Council for the Defense of Democracy) party; Frédéric Bamvuginyumvira, vice-president of Sahwanya-FRODEBU (Front for Democracy in Burundi) party and a ranking CNARED member; some members of FRODEBU-Nyakuri; as well as Evariste Ngayimpenda and Tacien Sibomana, vice-president and spokesman respectively of the Nditije faction of the UPRONA (Union for National Progress) party, which is not part of the government. (Another UPRONA faction is part of the governing coalition.)
Their motives were unclear. They all insisted that any opportunity to convey their views and to try to talk Burundi out of its crisis should be seized. However, one could not ignore the fact that Nyangoma had just been voted out of CNARED’s leadership – so sour grapes might have been a factor.
Charles Nditije, President of the faction of the UPRONA party outside government and in CNARED, deplored the participation of his officials Ngayimpenda and Sibomana, particularly – but by inference all the CNARED members who had participated, accusing them of ‘treason’. CNARED announced that it would sanction its errant members for participating in the dialogue.
The dialogue itself seems to have produced few surprises. Since the opposing sides evidently did not want to sit round the same table, Mkapa apparently conducted shuttle diplomacy, meeting each group separately. Each side staked out its familiar positions.
The group of political parties that boycotted the 2015 elections asked Mkapa to ‘help in setting up a transitional government without President Nkurunziza to address the crisis.’ These included the disobedient officials of Nditije’s UPRONA; the Union for Peace and Development (UPD-Zigamibanga); the faction of the CNDD-FDD (National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy) led by the former leader of the presidential party, Hussein Radjabu; FRODEBU and Nyangoma’s CNDD.
Pasteur Mpawenayo, representative of UPD-Zigamibanga, said: ‘The cause of the current crisis, the targeted killings, the outflow of more than 270 000 Burundian refugees to the neighbouring countries, the forced disappearances, mass human rights violations, and arbitrary imprisonments, is the third candidacy of Nkurunziza,’ adding ‘Elections inevitably have to be reorganised in Burundi.’
Mkapa also met a group of political parties that did take part in the 2015 elections. This included the ruling party CNDD-FDD and the opposition parties which are allied to the government, such as the Coalition for Peace in Burundi (COPA), the Rally for Democracy in Burundi (RADEBU), the faction of UPRONA led by Concilie Nibigira and the National Forces of Liberation (FNL).
These parties told him that those parties demanding Nkurunziza step down and new elections be held were ‘challenging the will of the Burundian people,’ as Jean de Dieu Mutabazi, leader of RADEBU, said. He added that they were trying to seize power by ‘coup d’état’ or negotiations like the Arusha agreements instead of through the ballot box.
At least some parties in this group consider the Arusha agreements as ‘the origin of the series of crises which have eroded the country since years ago, because some of the Burundi social groups want to benefit from posts in the government they don’t deserve.’
For them, the Arusha Agreement ‘gave to the Tutsis ethnic group more privileges than the Hutus’, a reference to the disproportionate posts given to the minority Tutsis in the agreement, to persuade them to relinquish power.
This first round of the dialogue ended on Tuesday with a second round scheduled for the third week of June.
‘I will continue over the next few weeks to hear from important voices that were not here for various reasons,’ Mkapa said. This assurance has encouraged at least some international observers to believe there is hope for broadening this dialogue until it is inclusive enough to be meaningful. Tom Perriello, for one. The United States special envoy to the Great Lakes, who has been extremely active in trying to resolve the crisis, tweeted Mkapa’s announcement approvingly.
But Yolande Bouka, an Institute for Security Studies (ISS) associate specialising in Burundi, is not convinced. She remains sceptical about the motives of the region and the international community, suggesting that Mkapa is either falling for Nkurunziza’s divide-and-rule strategy – even if not intentionally – or he and his backers are simply resigned to the inevitability of Nkurunziza remaining in power at least until 2020 and are just going through the motions of mediation.
‘The reason why I’m so sceptical is the overwhelming backing this recent round of talks has had – and this despite the fact that they pretty much capitulated when it comes to inclusive and genuine dialogue. On one hand, an important platform is denied access to the talks; on the other, the government says it’s simply having discussions but has no intentions of negotiating.’
Bouka says Nkurunziza has been pursuing his strategy of dividing the opposition since 2010. If Mpaka knows this history – which I am sure he does – how much of an opening is he hoping for in the near future? These talks, sans CNARED, are a diplomatic victory for the government.’
Bouka expressed great frustration at the international community for voicing such strong support for the Arusha accords, and yet doing nothing when Nkurunziza flouted them so blatantly by running for a third term.
She particularly questions what role South Africa and Tanzania, the custodians of Arusha, are playing in trying to persuade Nkurunziza to negotiate in good faith.
These two countries are seen as having the most influence over him. South African officials tell ISS Today that they insist that the dialogue must be all-inclusive and real, but there are no signs that Nkurunziza is getting the message – or even if they are conveying it.
And what about Tanzania’s new President John Magufuli, who has shown that he is not afraid of confrontation at home? Can’t he do something?, she asks. ‘Consultations are a step forward, as long as they are not intended to prolong the status quo,’ Bouka cautions.
Perhaps the most sinister feature of the dialogue so far has been the demand to Mkapa by the pro-government parties that the Arusha accords should be amended to remove the enhanced Tutsi quotas in government and especially military posts. That looks like Nkurunziza’s attempted revenge on his political opponents. They quote Arusha’s two-term limits against him; he retaliates by threatening to alter Arusha to remove its minority protection clauses.
But, this is unlikely to happen – at least not in a negotiated settlement, says Stephanie Wolters, Head of the Conflict Prevention And Risk Analysis division at ISS. ‘The sense now is that if Nkurunziza can commit to safeguarding Arusha in its entirety, his current mandate will not be challenged by the international community. Of course it remains to be seen whether the opposition would agree to that,’ she added.
Needless to say, Nkurunziza would not be where he is today without the Arusha accords. As in South Africa – and not coincidentally since it was former president Nelson Mandela and then deputy president Jacob Zuma who brokered the Burundi deal – the minority would not have abandoned power and submitted to majority rule without such assurances.
But gratitude should not be expected from the likes of Nkurunziza.
Written by Peter Fabricius, ISS consultant