The following is the most recent submission to the ICRtoP’s RtoP at 10 blog series, which invites civil society and academic experts to examine critical country cases, international/regional perspectives, and thematic issues that have been influential in the development of the norm over the past 10 years, and that will have a lasting impact going forth into the next decade. Below is a piece by Lucy Hovil, Senior Researcher at International Refugee Rights Initiative, a Steering Committee Member of the ICRtoP.
Much hope was pinned to the summit of East African Community (EAC) heads of state on 31 May in Dar es Salaam to discuss the situation in Burundi that has evolved since President Nkurunziza announced his intention to stand for a third term. The potential impact of this meeting was lessened by the fact that Nkurunziza, not surprisingly, did not attend: the last time he left the country, there was an attempted coup.
Previous experience in the region has shown that the destiny of each of the region’s countries is deeply intertwined with that of its neighbours. The approach of the EAC is an important example of the role that regional institutions can play in implementing the responsibility to protect. As noted by the Secretary-General noted in his 2011 report on The Role of Regional and Sub-Regional arrangements in Implementing the Responsibility to Protect, those that “are closer to the events on the ground may have access to more detailed information, may have a more nuanced understanding of the history and culture, may be more directly affected by the consequences of action taken or not taken, and may be critical to the implementation of decisions” at the global level.
Moreover, as noted by the Secretary-General, such regional actors have a responsibility under the second pillar of RtoP to assist Burundi to fulfill its protection obligations and protect populations from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing. Therefore, the involvement of the EAC is laudable and necessary (if the outcome from the most recent meeting is somewhat wanting).
However, it is also important to remember that regional leaders have as often been part of the problem as part of the solution. Therefore, urgent attention needs to be paid to the regional dynamics of this crisis to avoid an escalation – and a regionalisation – of what is, at least for the moment, a distinctly Burundian crisis. In a troubled region where numerous conflict dynamics have been left hanging, there is significant potential for those in need of political bolstering to draw in others in a political tit for tat. With much tinder on the ground, the potential for conflict to spread around the region should neither be assumed nor ignored.
Already the crisis has exacerbated tense relations between the governments of Rwanda and Burundi. Many of the leaders of the failed coup have allegedly escaped to Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, fuelling rumours that Rwanda was behind the coup. Off-the-record interviews with opposition politicians in Burundi show their faith in a strong alliance with Rwanda who, they believe, is ready to come to the rescue of the “oppressed” if needed. Rumours are rife in Bujumbura that a number of army officers have gone to Rwanda. Many fear that Rwanda will become a base for those in exile to create an opposition army, or that Rwanda could intervene more directly.
The Burundi government has expressed no doubt as to where Rwanda’s loyalties lie. According to a declaration broadcast on radio on 25 May, the government said “some countries” are getting involved in the crisis in Burundi and are making matters worse. As one civil society leader in Bujumbura told the author, “Any Burundian knows that what the government is really referring to here is Rwanda.”
The instability and continuing presence of armed groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) provides further fuel for the potential regionalisation of the Burundi situation. Just as armed groups in the DRC have been supported by regional powers in a form of proxy warfare in the past, there is a risk that these groups might be drawn into the current crisis. Already there are rumours to this effect. Some members of the opposition are accusing the government of Burundi of allowing interahamwe (former génocidaires who took part in the 1994 Rwanda genocide) to operate alongside the government’s notorious armed youth wing, the imbonerakure. The government has strongly denied these allegations. However, with the opposition asserting support from the government of Rwanda, the temptation for the government of Burundi to “make a deal” with Rwanda’s enemies, whether the Forces Démocratiques de Libération du Rwanda (FDLR), an anti-Rwandan-government militia including a number of former interahamwe or génocidaires, or others, is not beyond the realms of possibility. For its part, the government of Burundi is already claiming that damage has come from this alleged alignment, saying that Burundians who had previously fled to the DRC and had then returned to Burundi, have been forced to flee once more into exile for fear of being accused by the opposition of belonging to the interahamwe.
Much of this is rumour and conjecture, and it is important to emphasise that neither civil war nor regional conflict are by any means inevitable. Indeed, there are plenty of factors that can prevent this from happening if sufficient action is taken. While any resolution is going to need a creative combination of factors, the leaders of the EAC, if able to work together, can be key players and have the potential to comprehensively address these regional dynamics before they escalate.
However, whether or not this will happen remains to be seen. There is a serious concern that the EAC leaders could split into factions and exacerbate tension. For example, tensions between Burundi and Rwanda were aggravated when Burundi “sided” with Tanzania in their stand-off with Rwanda in 2013. Tanzania’s President Kikwete called on countries taking part in peace talks on the ongoing crisis in eastern DRC to open discussions with all the rebel groups operating there, including the FDLR. Rwandan President Kagame, who was still smarting from having lost favour with a number of donors who suspended aid in mid-2012 following accusations that it was supporting the M23 rebellion in eastern DRC, was infuriated by the suggestion, and the relationship between the two countries quickly deteriorated. Tanzania expelled thousands of Rwandans – including refugees and a number of Burundians and Ugandans who were accused of being Rwandan – and Rwanda increased trade barriers against Tanzania. While Burundi supported Tanzania, Kenya and Uganda sided with Rwanda, splitting the EAC. Although relations have since become more civil, tensions have remained.
Furthermore, leaders in the region will be hard pressed to take the moral high ground on the presidential term limit debate. Uganda’s President Museveni has tampered with the constitution to accommodate not only a third term but to remove term limits entirely, and the Rwandan parliament is soon to debate whether or not Rwanda should do the same. Even more worryingly, political leaders may see their own fates reflected in whether or not President Nkurunziza remains in power: they may be tempted to conduct their external affairs primarily with a view to their own political futures rather than to the good of Burundi.
All of this boils down to the fact that the current crisis precipitated by President Nkurunziza’s declaration of his intention to run for a third term has the potential to exacerbate numerous tensions that have been simmering below the surface for years, or even decades. Once more, it seems that the failure to deal adequately with past rounds of conflict is likely to come back to bite the region. With so many loose ends left hanging – as evidenced by rebel groups operating in eastern DRC and a broader failure throughout the region to generate justice and equitable governance – the situation remains tense. Indeed, the exodus of approximately 100,000 refugees from Burundi to neighbouring states has, in many respects, already made it into a regional affair.
Ultimately, however, the responsibility for what is taking place in Burundi rests primarily with the government and thus firmly at the feet of the president. Although President Nkurunziza appears to hold most of the cards at the moment, this may not remain the case for much longer. The more he tightens the screws on the opposition the more dangerous the situation will become, and the more likely it is that his opponents will look to alternative sources of assistance. As head of state, he has a responsibility to protect populations in his country and to prevent of the escalation of the crisis.