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EAC summit is an opportunity to revive burundi talks

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Added 30th November 2018 04:06 PM

In this context, it is vital that the EAC, and the international community more broadly, remain engaged and support the pursuit of a just and sustainable peace in Burundi.

Olivia 703x422

In this context, it is vital that the EAC, and the international community more broadly, remain engaged and support the pursuit of a just and sustainable peace in Burundi.

OPINION

The process of dialogue in Burundi is perilously stalled. After five rounds of talks produced little progress, the facilitator, former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa has called for a re-evaluation of his role and that of the facilitation as a whole.

He is expected to report on these issues to the Summit of the East African Community (EAC), scheduled for 30 November, despite Burundian government requests for a postponement.

The heads of state gathered at the summit will then face a stark choice – address the shortcomings of the process to date, support the AU in brokering a solution, or turn away from Burundi.

The government of Burundi will likely ask them to turn away. The government has long argued that the situation in the country is calm and it is capable of addressing whatever issues the country faces alone.

The reality, however, is not so rosy. More than 380,000 Burundians remain in exile in neighboring countries. 1.7 million, nearly 15% of the total population, face food insecurity. Although the country maintains a veneer of outward calm, an atmosphere of repression remains and serious human rights abuses persist.

There is serious reason for concern that if dialogue is not vigorously pursued now, the cycles of violence that have for so long consumed Burundi may be reignited: the fragile accommodation that was embodied in the Arusha Accords is being increasingly directly challenged, sporadic armed attacks continue and weapons caches have been found, and the 2020 election cycle could spark a new round of violence.

In this context, it is vital that the EAC, and the international community more broadly, remain engaged and support the pursuit of a just and sustainable peace in Burundi.

During the summit, the EAC should assess the weaknesses of the process so far with a view to finding ways to remedy them.

Previous research carried out by IRRI, has highlighted what Burundians themselves see as the key concerns: the weakness of the mediation, the unwillingness by parties to commit to it, and the lack of pressure on them do so.

At the outset, the EAC appointed Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni to lead the talks. But in a conflict sparked by the debate over a third term, Museveni, amidst his various efforts to extend his own tenure, was not seen as credible.

Although Mkapa’s appointment as a facilitator was initially welcomed, he too came to be seen as a partial. In the words of a Burundian interviewed in 2018, “He didn’t win everyone's confidence because he had a bias in favour of the government.”

Burundians lamented that the current facilitation lacked the international credibility or the stern hand of either Julius Nyerere or Nelson Mandela, the elder statesmen who helped to conclude the Arusha Accords.

Burundians recognised that there is little pressure on the government of Burundi to negotiate seriously at the moment. The opposition is weak and divided, and armed groups are no match for the government.

With serious internal concerns, but little opportunity to force the government to address them many Burundians looked to actors outside the country, and especially in the region, to provide greater balance by exerting pressure on the government.

Although current measures such US and EU sanctions were perceived differently by pro-government and pro-opposition Burundians and have not resulted in significant change, there is general consensus that agreement will not be achieved without pressure on the parties to do so, whether through diplomatic engagement or concrete sanctions.

With these deficits in the process for far in their sites, the EAC should take urgent action to revitalise the dialogue. This could be done within the EAC by appointing new mediators and by ensuring the involvement of heads of state in pressing the Burundian government, or they could support the AU or the UN to take the lead.

While that is no guarantee for better results, it would at least provide a new start and fresh energy. 

President Museveni has a key responsibility in this regard, as official mediator and current chairperson of the East African Community. Is he really a leader promoting peace in the Great Lakes region, or will he turn his back on the more than 33,000 Burundians who fled to Uganda after the 2015 violence?

The peril of not acting is a continuing stalemate, with hundreds of thousands remaining in exile and a risk of continuous human rights violations and even increased violence.

Olivia Bueno is interim executive director of International Refugee Rights Initiative (IRRI), an NGO founded to inform and improve responses to the cycles of violence and displacement that are at the heart of large-scale human rights violations.

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