Burundi's president Nkurunziza no longer considers Rwanda a partner but an enemy

It is important to find ways to prevent the eruption of a possible open conflict between Rwanda and Burundi which could lead to devastating consequences for the region, write Selina Diaby and Patrick Hajayandi.

Burundi and Rwanda are often considered as twins because of the number of resemblances in their societies: the presence of Hutu, Tutsi and Twa, the same language, beliefs systems, and traditions. 

Throughout the past century, the history of the two countries has become deeply entangled. A number of factors explain this: a colonial past together as one territory under German occupation and later under a trusteeship of Belgium, from 1885 to 1962; the flow of refugees in both directions in the years that followed the independence of both countries and two most brutal genocides – the 1972 Hutu genocide and the 1994 Tutsi genocide. 

At the same time, the historical trajectory of Burundi has been very different from Rwanda's, even though they have shared some similar experiences. For instance, Rwanda acquired independence as a republic following a Hutu revolution in 1959 while Burundi became a constitutional kingdom in 1962. 

The two countries adopted different political systems which later would influence their mutual relations, depending on who was at the helm, whether a Hutu or a Tutsi.

In the 1990s, the two countries suffered from civil wars, which ended differently. In Rwanda, in 1994 the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) led by the President Paul Kagame came to power after a victory over the Hutu dominated former regime of Juvenal Habyarimana.

In Burundi, the civil war effectively ended in 2008 following a series of negotiated settlements, which included mainly the Arusha Peace Accords signed in 2000, and the Global Ceasefire Accords signed in 2003. The power-sharing arrangements between the belligerents led to the establishment of a largely inclusive government.

It also paved the way to the 2005 elections that brought the National Council for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) to power under the leadership of President Pierre Nkurunziza.

Following the controversies around the third term in office for Nkurunziza in 2015 and the political crisis that erupted, the government of Rwanda demonstrated a sustained support towards the Burundi political opposition. In particular, general Godefroid Niyombare who attempted to overthrow Nkurunziza, on 13 May 2015, is believed to enjoy shelter provided by Rwandan authorities, along with many other opposition leaders who may have played a direct or indirect role in the coup plot. 

In addition, members of the organisations that led the anti-Nkurunziza media campaign such as private radios like the RPA, TV Renaissance are operating freely in Kigali under the tutelage of Rwandan authorities. Following several terrorist-like attacks with grenades thrown in the marketplace, the government of Burundi decided to raise the alarm regarding the involvement of Rwanda in fuelling violence and insecurity.

A commission of the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) was dispatched in both countries to investigate the allegations of Rwanda's meddling into Burundi's internal affairs. However, the Rwandan government refused to receive the commission after their work in Burundi.

The commission needed to verify allegations of Rwanda recruiting and giving a military training to Burundian refugees from the Mahama camp, one of the biggest refugee settlement in Rwanda. The accusations of recruitment and military training of refugees was confirmed by a confidential report of the United Nations in February 2016. The armed attack perpetrated in July 2015 at the border area in Kayanza (North of Burundi) is believed to have benefitted from a logistical and material support of the Rwandan Defense Forces. The attack against four military installations on 11 and 12 December 2015 is also considered as a result of Rwandan authorities' action.

In addition, the recent massacre that took place in May 2018 leaving 26 people dead in Ruhagarika, in the Western province of Cibitoke has been imputed to an armed group led by Alexis Sinduhije, a Burundi opposition leader living alternatively in DRC and Rwanda.

On its side, the Rwandan government has reciprocated accusations against Burundi saying that Burundian authorities have given support to a Rwandan rebel group operating along the border in the Nyungwe forest. Early this year, there was an armed attack in Nyaruguru district, in the Southern province of Rwanda. Burundi was accused of supporting the armed group, which attacked the area, leaving two dead. A Rwandan armed group called FLN claimed to have carried out the attack.

In his letter to Museveni, the Burundian president refers to Rwanda as the main destabiliser and enemy of his country. He bases his argument on the various unfriendly acts of Rwanda towards the government of Burundi as observed since 2015. In the letter, Nkurunziza accuses Rwanda of being involved in the planning and execution of the failed coup as well as sponsoring armed attacks on Burundi territory.

In November 2015 Rwandan president Paul Kagame expressed critical concerns about Nkurunziza's decision to stay in power. Kagame accused Nkurunziza of setting the ground for a possible genocide by creating political tension within the Burundian society. Paradoxically, at almost the same time, critics were arguing that Kagame was trying to extend his tenure in office through a referendum held in December 2015. Nkurunziza's letter insists on the imperative to organise an extra-ordinary summit to discuss the Burundi-Rwanda conflict.

Since the escalation of tensions between the two neighbours, the leadership of the EAC seems to have been avoiding this delicate issue. Indeed, it is sensitive problem and a real threat to the very integration process  the EAC seeks to promote.

Rwanda's support to people attempting to overthrow state institutions in Burundi is a serious hindrance to good diplomatic relations. The escalation of a conflict between Rwanda and Burundi is undoubtedly a destabilising factor not only for the EAC but for the whole Great Lakes Region and the continent at large. 

In recent decades the Great Lakes region has been marred by civil wars and suffered from consequences of sponsored violence and large-scale abuses of human rights that left millions of people dead and others displaced, raped, mutilated, traumatised and hopeless. It is therefore necessary for the EAC leadership, the African Union and possibly the United Nations to take seriously the conflict and escalating tensions between Burundi and Rwanda and the fact that they pose a threat to regional and continental stability. 

It will be necessary to meet both parties in the conflict in order to analyse what actions may lead to de-escalating the tensions. Nkurunziza's demand for an extraordinary summit dedicated to finding solutions for the crisis should not be ruled out. Utilising a framework of 'regional reconciliation' offers the more effective prospects to de-escalate the tensions between the two countries, as well as other players in the region. Regional reconciliation proceeds on the basis of convening three processes: leader-to-leader dialogues; government-to-government collaboration; and people-to-people solidarity and peacebuilding. 

It is important to find ways to prevent the eruption of a possible open conflict which could lead to devastating consequences for the region. This would be an important step towards restoring peace between the two countries, the EAC region and the continent.

- Selina Diaby is a volunteer intern and Patrick Hajayandi is senior project leader in the IJR Peacebuilding Interventions Programme

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