Burundi’s peace talks going nowhere

Samuel Okiror

A regular IRIN contributor based in Kampala

The purpose of peace talks is to engage your opponent across the negotiating table. But the Burundi government sees things differently and by picking and choosing who it talks to, on Tuesday sank the latest mediation effort to resolve the country’s political crisis.

Four days of an “inter-Burundi dialogue”, mediated by former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa, has been labeled a “monologue” by the opposition. They are furious over the government’s decision to reject talking to key members of the umbrella National Council for the Restoration of Arusha Agreement and Rule of Law – known by the French acronym “CNARED”.

The government of President Pierre Nkurunziza has been steadfast in its refusal to talk with opponents implicated in a coup attempt last year aimed at stopping his bid for a third-term in office. Instead the 21 to 24 May “dialogue” in Arusha, Tanzania, featured only government officials, two former heads of state, and a selection of like-minded individuals.

In a limp statement on Sunday, Mkapa’s office regretted the absence of key opposition figures, and said Mkapa would “meet all the stakeholders who were invited to attend the Arusha dialogue and were not able to come due to various reasons … in due course.”

Some members of the CNARED alliance had been invited to Arusha. But it was in their private capacity, not as representatives of the body, which is recognized by the African Union and the East African Community as the legitimate voice of the opposition.

“The negotiations that exclude the real stakeholders in the crisis, including CNARED, civil society, armed movements, religious representatives, media, women and youth are a waste of time,” said a CNARED statement. “Those who have gone to Arusha know themselves, they have no atom of [a] solution to the crisis that [has] rocked Burundi.”

The humanitarian fallout

The UN estimates that at least 474 people have died as a result of political violence since April last year. More than 79,000 people have been internally displaced and 250,000 have fled the country. The crisis has crippled Burundi’s economy, worsening already poor development indicators.

CNARED insists it will not accept any post-crisis arrangement that allows Nkurunziza to stay in office. They argue that his third-term bid was prohibited by the constitution and also violated the 2000 Arusha peace accord that ended Burundi’s decade-long civil war. But in a controversial ruling the courts allowed Nkurunziza to stand, and he went on to easily win elections in July 2015.

“For the government, allowing CNARED to participate in the dialogue without changing its position on the future of Nkurunziza is seen as an early capitulation that could have serious consequences on the future of the ruling party,” said Reverien Mfizi, a doctoral candidate in political science at the State University of New York.

“As long as the opposition maintains that position, we are not likely to see the government changing its position on the inclusion [in talks] of coup plotters and opposition armed groups,” he told IRIN.

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But without the participation of all parties to the negotiations, including armed groups involved in attacks on the security forces and government officials, a political solution to end the 13-month conflict is unlikely, analysts warn.

“Tensions on the ground are escalating. Government raids on opposition neighborhoods and abductions (often of relatives of members of civil society or opposition groups) continue,” said Joseph Siegel of the Africa Centre for Strategic Studies at the National Defense University in Washington DC.

“Given these actions and the perceived futility of negotiations, a growing number of Burundians are of the mind that change will only come through armed opposition,” he told IRIN.

“The situation in Burundi demands a more urgent response,” said Carina Tertsakian, Human Rights Watch’s senior researcher for Burundi and Rwanda. “The most urgent thing is for parties to put pressure on the Burundian government to take concrete measures to stop the killings and other abuses – immediately.”

The International Criminal Court has opened a preliminary investigation into the allegations of gross human rights, including torture, rape and disappearances.

CNARED's participation has been a longstanding sticking point for the East African Community-mediated talks, both back when Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni was facilitator and now under the direction of Mkapa. But given the implacability of the Burundi government, the former Tanzanian leader may have had no option at the moment but to meet CNARED separately in the search for common ground.

No leverage?

“The problem is that the [African Union] and international community more broadly, has little leverage over Nkurunziza in pressuring his government to include CNARED absent the credible threat of sanctions or intervention,” said Alex Fielding, senior analyst at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm.

“Nkurunziza called the AU's bluff back in December when the regional bloc resolved to intervene militarily with or without consent, correctly predicting that neither the AU leaders nor the UN Security Council had the political will to intervene militarily against a hostile Burundi,” he told IRIN.

“One has to remember how difficult it was for the region to bring the CNDDFDD [Nkurunziza’s party], then a rebel group, to the negotiating table in the nineties to understand that the situation requires a whole new level of intervention,” Carine Kaneza, spokesperson for the Women and Girls Movement for Peace and Security in Burundi, told IRIN.

“If CNDDFDD was resilient and defiant [then] … what will it take today when they control all national instruments of state power?”

The Arusha Accords, a power-sharing arrangement that merged the army with rebel forces, remains the reference point for a political solution today.

“Nkurunziza must consider political concessions - such as increasing the power of opposition parties over key decision-making areas - that will appease the protesters,” said Phil Clark, a Great Lakes expert at the School of Oriental and African Affairs, University of London.

“Given that Nkurunziza will continue refusing to step down, he must find other ways to respond to protesters' demands, including on ceasing daily violations against citizens, tackling state corruption and delivering development in the Burundian countryside,” he told IRIN.

To bring that about, how willing is the international community to consider more robust measures?

The deployment of a UN police force to protect civilians has been among the options the UN Security Council has been considering since April. So far, Burundi has opposed anything beyond 20 unarmed police advisers.

“The only feasible solution involves the government agreeing to an external observer mission that ensures an end to the government's violations - including killings - against opposition leaders and supporters. That must be the first process put in place,” Clark told IRIN.

For now, the likelihood of Bujumbura voluntarily agreeing to that remains remote.

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