Running Out of Options in Burundi

Talks about ending Burundi’s crisis – sparked by the president’s decision to seek a third term – have fizzled out. With elections nearing in 2020, tensions could flare. Strong regional pressure is needed to begin opening up the country’s political space before the balloting.

What’s new? After almost three years, the Inter-Burundi Dialogue has ended in failure. Next steps are unclear as regional leaders reject handing over mediation to other institutions while not committing wholeheartedly themselves to resolving the crisis. Elections due in 2020 carry a real risk of violence unless political tensions ease.

Why did it happen? The East African Community (EAC) took the lead on mediation in Burundi though it lacks the requisite experience, expertise or resources. Absence of political will and divisions among member states, coupled with the Burundian government’s intransigence, made successful dialogue among the parties impossible.

Why does it matter? Without urgent intervention, the 2020 elections will take place in a climate of fear and intimidation. This would increase risks of electoral violence and people joining armed opposition groups and ensure that Burundi continues its descent into authoritarianism, raising prospects of another major crisis with regional repercussions.

What should be done? Regional leaders should use their influence, including threats of targeted sanctions, to persuade the government to allow exiled opponents to return and campaign without fear of reprisal. The EAC, African Union and UN should coordinate to prevent Bujumbura from forum-shopping and not allow Burundi to slip from the international agenda.

Executive Summary

After almost three years, the Inter-Burundi Dialogue has ended in failure. The talks, led by the East African Community (EAC), came in response to a political crisis sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s April 2015 decision to stand for a third term. They were unsuccessful for a variety of reasons, notably EAC member states’ divisions and disinterest. Even now, regional leaders refuse to hand over the mediation to either the African Union (AU) or the UN, but are not prepared to commit wholeheartedly to resolving the crisis. The paralysis is worrying, as elections are due in 2020 and, unless political tensions ease, the risk of violence is high. No one expects the polls to be free or fair, but they could at least be peaceful with opposition politicians able to compete without fear of reprisal, thereby preserving a degree of pluralism that might help prevent a worse descent into conflict. Much, however, depends on Nkurunziza’s willingness to open up political space and the readiness of regional leaders, in particular the Tanzanian and Ugandan presidents, John Magufuli and Yoweri Museveni, to nudge him in that direction.

In July 2015, at the height of the crisis, the EAC established the Inter-Burundi Dialogue, appointing President Museveni as mediator and, later, former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa as facilitator to assist him. The regional body took the lead under the AU’s principle of subsidiarity, which holds that peace and security issues in Africa should be dealt with at the most local level. The EAC was not equipped for the task, however. It is first and foremost a forum for economic integration, and as such had no experience or expertise in complex political mediation. It also lacked sufficient financial resources and, with Nkurunziza loyalist Libérat Mfumukeko as secretary general, was open to accusations of bias.

Compounding these institutional shortcomings was a lack of political support for the dialogue from EAC heads of state. Historical political rifts among these countries, combined with economic rivalries and heightened personal animosities among their leaders, prevented the region from forming a consensus on how to resolve the crisis. Since the beginning of the crisis, regional leaders have increasingly seen Burundi as an ally or a tool in these disputes and thus have been reluctant to antagonise Nkurunziza by using their leverage to force him to negotiate. Without regional backing, Mkapa found it impossible to bring the parties together for face-to-face discussions.

Talks have taken place sporadically, with facilitators shuttling between the two camps. The opposition parties started out with their own preconditions and red lines, but eventually demonstrated their readiness to compromise, most significantly dropping the demand that the president step down. The government, however, has been intransigent throughout, consistently refusing to participate in the mediation in good faith. By pitting the EAC, AU and UN against one another, Nkurunziza successfully resisted the various forms of external pressure exerted on Burundi – intense public criticism, the threat of an AU military force, the withdrawal of vital financial aid and sanctions on prominent political figures. Instead of moderating its behaviour, the government has consolidated power and begun to dismantle protections for the Tutsi minority provided for by the 2000 Arusha peace agreement that ended Burundi’s long civil war.

As a result, and despite the EAC’s efforts, as well as those of other international actors, Burundi remains in crisis: its economy is on life support, more than 350,000 refugees reside in neighbouring states, most of the government’s political opponents are in exile and those who stayed are subject to severe repression. If elections take place under these circumstances, many Burundians will likely reject them, potentially resulting in street protests that could turn violent and increase support for armed opposition groups, as happened in 2015.

While the government is unlikely to fully open the political space ahead of the polls, it should be possible to push for conditions that allow the opposition to contest in safety, preserve a degree of political pluralism and prevent the escalation of violence. Four things are required to achieve this outcome:

  • The government should allow opponents in exile to return and campaign freely without intimidation, arrest or violence. It should also let external monitors observe preparations for the polls as well as the voting and counting.
     
  • Regional leaders should use their influence over President Nkurunziza to ensure that the government undertakes these steps. They should publicly state their willingness to freeze senior government and ruling-party figures’ assets and be ready to review Burundi’s membership in the EAC itself if the country does not make progress toward more credible elections.
     
  • The AU should revive its High-Level Delegation to Burundi, and if necessary reconstitute its membership. It should expand the delegation’s mandate to enable it to build consensus in the region and encourage EAC leaders to help advance talks. The AU should negotiate with the Burundian government an increase in the number of human rights observers and military experts it deploys in country. It should use this augmented contingent to monitor the security situation, including opposition politicians’ safety, and assess preparations for the forthcoming elections, including whether conditions for a more credible vote exist. The AU Peace and Security Council and the High Level Delegation should use reports from the AU team on the ground to inform their diplomacy on the crisis. The Assembly of Heads of State, meeting in extraordinary session in July 2019, should endorse these measures.
     
  • The EAC, the AU and the UN should closely align efforts to ensure that Nkurunziza does not forum-shop. Crucially, they must not allow the crisis to fall off the international agenda.
     

If no significant headway has been made before the end of 2019, the EAC, AU, UN and other external actors should call for the elections to be postponed for six months. This would give the government ample additional time to get its house in order and forestall potential complaints from Bujumbura and its allies that it has had insufficient time. The EAC, AU and UN should use the extra months to redouble efforts to press the government to improve conditions for credible and peaceful elections. If the vote proceeds without a change in conditions on the ground, either as scheduled or after a postponement, external actors should not support or observe the polls and should minimise diplomatic contact with any resulting government and the EAC should suspend Burundi and freeze its senior leaders’ assets.

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