ISS: The uncertain future of peacebuilding in Burundi


Burundi has enjoyed a short period of peace since 2010, but this could turn out to be the lull before the storm. Recent events paint a picture of growing tension between the government of Burundi and the UN Office in Burundi (BNUB).

Burundi also faces an increasingly complicated situation with tension mounting ahead of the country’s 2015 elections, which could potentially obstruct peacebuilding processes in the country and undermine the progress that has already been made.

When the UN established its peacebuilding architecture in 2005, it aimed to create effective mechanisms for long-term responses in preventing conflict and working towards sustainable peace. At the time of its creation, the Peacebuilding Commission chose two countries as its initial focus countries: Sierra Leone and Burundi. While Sierra Leone has shown remarkable progress and recently saw a relatively uncontroversial departure of its UN peacebuilding mission, Burundi is in a more difficult situation.

Following in the aftermath of a civil war that lasted almost two decades, there are several new challenges in Burundi’s peacebuilding process. Recently, there has been an increasing number of concerning reports of crackdowns on opposition leaders, disputes around land issues, constitutional changes and claims that the youth group of the ruling party (Imbonerakure) are inciting violence against certain sectors of society.

In a recent interview, a former rebel leader, Agathon Rwasa, said: ‘Burundi has resumed a war … people are being shot with live bullets when they are not armed.’ The recent arrest of human rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa – for alleging that Burundians are receiving military training in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and are being armed – is also a worrying sign that the government is trying to silence critical voices. The Burundian government is accountable to its people, and citizens should have the right to voice their opinions regarding the peace process in their country.

The UN, international parties and non-governmental institutions in Burundi have added to reports that violence has escalated due to the activities of Imbonerakure. The ruling party has, however, downplayed the threat that its youth chapter might present to peacebuilding in the country. This has added tension to the already antagonistic relations between the UN and government. Government officials said their words and actions have been taken out of context and used to paint an exaggerated picture of what is really happening in the country.

Despite consistent and continuous engagement, the Burundi government and UN have reached a stalemate on the way forward for the country and ensuring the best course of action for peacebuilding. This is in spite of Burundi having been a major priority in the UN’s efforts to strengthen their peacebuilding responses and programmes.

The country has been the top recipient of the UN Peacebuilding Fund, which has contributed US$61 million to date to improve national dialogue and social cohesion; youth participation in political and socio-economic life; democratic exercises of human rights and to resolve land disputes. Burundi has also received a higher number of visits from the Peacebuilding Commission configuration chairs than other countries on the Commission’s agenda.

In early 2014, the government expressed that it wanted the UN peacebuilding mission, BNUB, to withdraw from the country and hand over its functions to the UN Country Team. While the UN argued for a continuation of the mission – as not all political functions of BNUB could feasibly be led by UN agencies on the ground – the request from government was based on the argument that BNUB’s departure would enable Burundian actors to take full ownership of its political process. A Transition Steering Group (TSG) – co-chaired by the UN and Burundi government – was established in March 2014. This is in preparation for BNUB’s expected departure in December 2014.

The tension between the UN and Burundi reveals some of the challenges in implementing effective peacebuilding responses and in the engagement between international and national actors. The government of Burundi seems to be orienting many of its policies towards the political survival of its ruling elite, which causes the UN to be sceptical of the country’s attempts to conduct constitutional changes. This tension is certainly not new, as the UN and the government of Burundi have long since had different views on the pace of the democratic process in the country.

The UN was previously asked to withdraw its peacekeeping mission in 2006, and the post of the secretary-general’s special representative on the ground in Burundi has seen a record turnover, largely due to the government’s pressure for their removal – according to the Security Council Report.

The way forward will require a fine balance. While the UN will continue to be engaged in Burundi, the current situation suggests that the role of the UN in supporting and strengthening institutions and security efforts should be reconsidered, in addition to working towards good governance.

Programmatically, this would have to occur through a strong engagement between the role of the UN Peacebuilding Fund, which is expected to continue operating in the country, and its counterparts within the UN Country Team. Politically, the UN and other international actors will have to identify gaps that its departure will create and find better ways to assist Burundi so that the country takes ownership of its own peacebuilding process, and to ensure the process is effectively implemented.

This gives rise to several questions, which will have to be answered as the UN prepares for BNUB’s departure and Burundi prepares for its 2015 elections. How can Burundi’s ownership of its peacebuilding processes be maintained in a way that still allows for support from external actors? Who will deal with the functions that cannot be entirely covered by the UN Country Team? And how can the experience in Burundi assist in strengthening the wider engagements of the UN Peacebuilding Commission in all of its focus countries?

A review of the UN peacebuilding architecture is expected to occur in 2015, which needs to improve the UN’s wider peacebuilding efforts. Both the UN and the Burundi government can use the current situation to strengthen mutual responses to peacebuilding challenges. In this way, international and national actors can learn how to strengthen not only their own relationships, but ultimately also responses in peacebuilding processes in general.

Written by Gustavo de Carvalho, Senior Researcher and Liezelle Kumalo, Intern, Conflict Management and Peacebuilding Division, ISS Pretoria

Republished with permission from ISS Africa. The original story can be found here.