Special Reports

Inside Burundi- Rwanda frosty simmering relations, what are the real issues?

Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza and Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame. Tension between the two nations continues to grow

BUJUMBURA/KIGALI/KAMPALA – A week ago, Burundi’s president referred to neighbours Rwanda as an enemy in a letter to President Yoweri Museveni.

Mr. Pierre Nkurunziza wrote to his Ugandan counterpart, who is chair of the six-nation East African Community (EAC), saying he regards Rwanda not as a partner but as an enemy.

President Nkurunziza wants a special summit of the EAC – which comprises Burundi, Rwanda, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, and South Sudan – to discuss the conflict.

Sources in the presidency confirmed Burundi government officials will be in Uganda for the re-launching of the EAC initiated dialogue on the political crisis between the two neighbouring states.

Following the failed coup attempt in May 2015, the EAC had assigned Mr. Museveni to chair the consultations between government and the opposition groups.

However, President Museveni assigned Defence minister Adolf Mwesigye to chair the seasonal consultations between the worrying parties.

The genesis of the frosty relations

In early 2015, as President Nkurunziza’s term was about to end, he declared his intentions to seek another five years term.

The main opposition parties, civil society groups, and some elites protested the move culminating into the April – May street protests.

Nkurunziza argued that his first five years did not count since he had simply been elected by parliament and that it’s only the second term where he was elected by adult suffrage that counted.

He insisted that he had served only one constitutional term.

The constitutional court concurred with Nkurunziza thus declaring him eligible for reelection. As the street protests escalated in the capital Bujumbura, scores of Wanainchi from the northern districts of Kayanza bordering with Rwanda started fleeing to Rwanda for refuge.

The popular street protests in Bujumbura were undermined by the foiled coup attempt in May 2015.

As the government carried out rounding up of suspected coup plotters, both the civilian and some security personnel fled the country to neighboring states including Rwanda and Uganda

Rwanda’s Kagame publicly urged Nkurunziza to abandon the so-called third term bid thus sparking off bad blood between the two sister countries.

Rwanda’s propaganda machinery attempted without success to portray an image of an ethnic conflict in Burundi. Also, its argument that its own Hutu rebel FDRL had been sheltered in Bujumbura and siding with the Hutu dominated government, did not take root.

The exchange of words between prompted EAC heads of states to assign President Museveni the duty to facilitate a dialogue between the warring parties.

Museveni travelled to Burundi via Rwanda from where he was joined by Uganda’s Ambassador to Rwanda.

In Burundi, Museveni urged the stakeholders to form a government of national unity.

His main mission was to convince the opposition to take part in the elections so as to give legitimacy to the polls.

Museveni also urged both parties to unite and talk less about political power and term limits but to instead concentrate on economic development.

He assigned his Minister Mwesigye to continue with facilitating the dialogue but the task stalled.

In June 2015, amidst tension in the capital Bujumbura, parliamentary elections were held and though boycotted by the main opposition parties.

Nkurunziza’s ruling party CNDD-FDD overwhelmingly won the elections with 77 out of the 100 elected seats.

As the country was preparing for the July presidential election, security forces repulsed an attack by an armed group in the northern region areas of Kabarole and Kayanza bordering with Rwanda.

This development further strained relations between the two sister countries.

During the April-May foiled coup attempt, a number of leading opposition figures, renegade security officers, civil society and dissident CNDD-FDD dissident fled to Rwanda and were given VIP sanctuary in Kigali.

In the meantime, the government of Burundi went ahead with the Presidential elections in July 2015 amidst tension in the capital, Bujumbura.

The voter turnout was 98 percent in the rest of the country save for the tension infested capital of Bujumbura.

Despite the last minute withdrawal from the race, seven other Presidential candidates still appeared on the ballot paper. At the close of the polls, CNDD-FDD candidate Nkurunziza won with 69.4 percent of the votes cast.

The leader of the most significant and Hutu dominated opposition party – FNL, Agathon Rwasa came next with 18.99% and 21 parliamentary seats. FNL’s Agathon Rwasa took up his position in parliament where he was later elected the Deputy Speaker by 108 out of 112 members of parliament.

Shortly after the elected government set off for business, a spate of assassinations targeting both Hutu and Tutsi civilians and grenade attacks on Police and Army installations. Though the attacks had an insurgency character, the government repeatedly blamed the attacks on armed criminals trained from Rwanda.

Rwanda on it also says Burundi’s actions— which include a blockage of the movement of goods and passenger vehicles across the border — a violation of the Common Market Protocol.

“We don’t have any political dialogue with Burundi. There is no reason to hold that dialogue. We are prepared to defend our territory and people, as we did in the past,” State Minister for Foreign Affairs, Olivier Nduhungirehe told the Rwandan local daily the New Times. “Those who are violating the EAC Common Market Protocol on the free movement of people should be held to account, not those who comply.”

He said Rwanda will not “waste its time” lodging complaints with the EAC Secretariat against Burundi.

However, Burundi has filed multiple reports to the EAC, the United Nations, and the African Union, accusing Rwanda of supporting rebels opposed to President Nkurunziza’s government.

Also, reports of Burundi insurgents being trained in their refugee camps inside Rwanda and being infiltrated back into Burundi via Congo came to the surface.

Burundi protested and Rwanda vehemently denied. The name of the new insurgent group and its leadership structure remained unclear and a subject of speculation. Some circles suggested that it was FNL while others called it Imbogora Burundi ((bring back Burundi).

It was until the early December 2015 clashes in the capital Bujumbura that leftover 80 alleged militants killed, that the world took the Burundi problem seriously.

The African Union resolved to send a 5000 peacekeeping contingent with funding from its newfound custodian, China. Driven by guilty consciousness, Rwanda said it would not contribute troops but would offer other forms of assistance.

Three years down the road, the situation has worsened as differences between political leaders and conflicting national interests cropping.

Experts say this threatens the integration of the East African Community member states and brings back memories of the 1977 break-up of its precursor.

President Nkurunziza claims his counterpart Kagame is plotting a plan to unseat his democratically elected government sparking off the controversy that could cost the regional integration.

Experts fault Uganda’s Museveni of failure to settle the controversy between the two neighbouring States.

On November 30, the 20th Ordinary Meeting of the EAC heads of state ended in disarray after Burundi boycotted, angry at how its concerns had been handled by the current EAC chairman.

President Museveni was forced to call off the meeting and reschedule it to December 27 citing lack of quorum.

As the issues simmering under the surface, some observers say the Community could be staring at a repeat of 1977 due to unresolved personality clashes.

In the ongoing EAC games in Burundi, Rwanda did not send a team.

Economic tensions

Burundi issued a ban on food exports to Rwanda and closed down the offices of bus companies operating between the two countries.

Bujumbura officials accused transport companies of being used by armed groups to destabilize Burundi.

Volcano Bus Services, which operated daily between the two countries closed its offices in Burundi and cancelled trips to Bujumbura. To date, the bus service transports travellers only up to the Akanyaru border post, where those who intend to continue to Burundi are expected to find other transport if authorised by Immigration officials.

Some Rwandan traders fled Burundi fearing for their safety and others were forced out in a purge against “Rwandan spies.”

The trade flow between the two countries was also wiped out, with statistics from the Rwanda Institute of Statistics showing that neither country has imported or exported to the other in the past two years.

Other issues at hand include commercial interests and security issues among the partner states.

In 1977, the break-up was caused by the ideological differences between Kenya and Tanzania, and personal differences between Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere and Ugandan dictator Idi Amin.



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