There’s been a flurry of high-profile visits to Burundi designed to find a settlement to the political crisis but little evidence yet that anything has been achieved.
First came UN Security Council members, followed by US President Barack Obama’s special envoy for the Great Lakes Region. Then, last week, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon dropped in; and finally there was a visit from five African heads of state.
Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza welcomed Ban with a promise to free 1,200 political prisoners (later extended to 2,000), and to re-open two independent radio stations.
The African Union delegation, led by South African President Jacob Zuma, won a commitment for the deployment of 100 military monitors and 100 human rights observers to help reduce the political violence that has claimed more than 400 lives since April, when Nkurunziza sought to extend his term in office.
But in reality, critics argue, the government is stalling.
On the critical issue of negotiating with the opposition coalition known as CNARED, which the government describes as “terrorists” and “coup-plotters”, Nkurunziza didn’t budge.
Instead, the authorities have unilaterally set up a National Commission for inter-Burundian Dialogue, known as the CNDI, to negotiate with people it finds more palatable.
This effectively involves “engaging factions that broke away from mainstream parties to join what was left of Nkurunziza’s governing coalition” before last year’s election, said Joseph Siegle, director of research at the Africa Center for Strategic Studies at National Defense University, Washington.
The opposition and key sections of civil society argue that negotiations can only be meaningful if they bridge the divide between the government and an armed opposition, a growing chasm that threatens all-out civil war.
“One can’t be a political party and judge,” said Leonce Ngendakumana, president of opposition platform ADC Ikibiri. “The negotiations must include those who are armed, including exiled coup-plotters.”
CNARED, many of whom are in exile, is recognised as the main opposition umbrella by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, appointed by the East African Community to mediate in the dispute.
Alex Fielding, senior analyst at Max Security Solutions, a geopolitical risk consulting firm, is also unimpressed with the government’s commitment on political prisoners. He regards it as a sop, to avoid the real issue of all-inclusive talks.
“When you read the presidential decree about the prisoner release, it excludes all those accused of treason as well as those who committed crimes ‘in organised groups’,” he told IRIN.
The opposition held out little hope of a robust position from Zuma and the AU visitors after a January summit chose not to back an earlier commitment by its Peace and Security Council to send 5,000 peacekeepers to Burundi.
The government’s acceptance of military observers needs to be seen in the context of the AU’s failure to fully deploy since July last year. Only 32 observers have been allowed into the country, and only after much haggling over memorandums of understanding.
“Given this history, it's important to note that the observers will not be able to do their job properly unless the Burundi government grants them the legal freedom of movement to travel and the political freedom to write independent reports,” said Paul Williams, associate professor at George Washington University.
“My questions would be: what use are observers if they are not deployed in the full authorised numbers and they are not granted the legal mandate and political freedom to travel as they wish and do their jobs independently?”
What then is next for Burundi?
“In my view, the best prospects for peace in Burundi will require sustained regional and international engagement. At this point, the Nkurunziza government does not feel the need politically to engage the genuine opposition,” said Siegle.
“While most regional and international diplomacy up to this point has been aimed at accommodating the Nkurunziza government, there is insufficient appreciation of the growing resignation among many Burundian citizens that armed opposition is the only way to be heard,” Siegle added.
“This means the time window for reaching a political resolution is limited and shrinking.”
Fielding, at Max Security Solutions, called for “a more active presence and forceful response by the AU and UN, with a credible threat of sanctions and peacekeeper deployment if the regime fails to engage in genuinely inclusive dialogue talks, rein in the arbitrary arrests that have become commonplace, and reopen the political space for dissident groups and independent media organisations.
“That said, I remain sceptical about the success of such talks as the main opposition and rebel demand remains that Nkurunziza steps down, something that he will refuse to consider as long as he retains support in rural areas and the security establishment,” Fielding added.
Steve McDonald, global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, did see a possible path out of the crisis.
“For a breakthrough to occur, there needs to be a frank conversation between Nkurunziza and selected opposition members, facilitated by a trusted third party – which does not include Museveni – out of the public eye and with no press coverage,” McDonald told IRIN.
“To date, the international community, including the AU, have been telling Nkurunziza who he needs to engage and what the outcome is to be, i.e. an abrogation of his third term as president. That is a non-starter,” he said.
“I do not think that Nkurunziza's goal is a return to mass, inter-communal violence. So he can be engaged. But how that is done is the critical element.”