Burundi-Rwanda: Inter-linked rivals at the heart of the “Great Lakes Region”

Burundi-Rwanda: Inter-linked rivals at the heart of the “Great Lakes Region”©AFP PHOTO / Esdras NDIKUMANA
Kagamé and Nkurunziza on a football stadium, 2008
8 min 33Approximate reading time

“There has never been any boundless kingdom. Burundi frequently fought various invasions from surrounding kingdoms.” 

At the end of two particularly bloody and dramatic civil wars, in 1994 for Rwanda and in 2005 for Burundi, both countries saw a reversal of the political and ethnic dominations that had come into being at the time of independence. In Rwanda, 55 years after the 1959 Revolution that overthrew the Tutsi monarchy and brought Hutu elites to power, the RPF rebellion led by Tutsi refugees who had settled in Uganda seized power in Kigali. In Burundi, after 40 years of “Tutsi military regimes”, free multiparty elections resulted in the victory of the CNDD-FDD, the most important pro-Hutu movement in the armed rebellion. 

Two radically opposed personalities have been in government since then. Paul Kagame, former chief of the intelligence services of the Ugandan National Resistance Army, has become the only master of Rwanda, having pushed aside or eliminated all his fellow fighters of the 1990s. He commands one of the best-trained armies of the continent and has imposed Rwanda as its big neighbours’ (Uganda, DRC, Tanzania) indispensable interlocutor.

Pierre Nkurunziza is a former civil combatant who never featured among the restricted circle of “generals” who waged the war of liberation in Burundi. As a man in the background of the CNDD-FDD’s political system, he played a decisive role during the civil war to keep under control the rivalries and ambitions of the military chiefs. He then deftly developed his position of weakness within the CNDD-FDD into an asset, soliciting, alternatively and concurrently, the various contenders for the leadership. He proceeded likewise as regards negotiations with the Burundian Armed Forces. In this case too, from a position of weakness, he imposed and preserved ascendancy without ever exposing himself personally, by continuously changing the composition of official or informal delegations sent to negotiate with the opponents. This rotation disconcerted the opposing party, preventing it from personifying relationships. In 2005, as no candidate emerged with a chance to impose himself within the military command, Pierre Nkurunziza was presented as the candidate by default at elections for the presidency of the Republic. He was well perceived by the population for his proximity and simplicity, and the leaders of neighbouring countries and foreign powers involved in the region were reassured by his “civil ”profile. 

Relations deteriorate  

At that time, relations with Rwanda were set fair The RPF authorities in Rwanda were not in favour of Pierre Buyoya and the Burundian Armed Forces winning the elections since they had refused to support them during the war. Accordingly, the RPF participated in the financing of the CNDD-FDD’s electoral campaign. Consultation between “ generals” of the two countries on regional security issues (Interahamwe and respective opponents) took place regularly. Rwandan investments in Burundi, already substantive, were increasing steadily.

For Rwanda, coexistence with a CNDD-FDD majority and a “democratic” Burundi which was politically, economically and militarily weak, made sense because:

-     The other pro-Hutu guerrilla components were marginalized, particularly the FLN of Agathon Rwasa, perceived as a sectarian, ethnicist organization;

-     the new “integrated” army maintained a strict balance between the ex-Burundian armed forces, that had been predominantly Tutsi and the combatants of the ex-Hutu rebellions; and,

-     the economic dependency of a badly managed country impoverished by ten years of war reinforced the polarization of regional trade to the benefit of Rwanda, and left a clear field for foreign capital and businessmen.

In October 2013, the defeat of the M23 rebellion, a pro-Rwandan armed group that held a dominant position in eastern Congo, at the hands of the South African and Tanzanian contingents of MONUSCO, was to profoundly change the relations between the two countries. Re-centered within its borders, Rwanda then accused Burundi of having become a safe haven for the FDLR and other genocidal forces, whose presence in the Congo had justified Rwanda’s intervention till then.

This accusation has imposed itself in the Burundian political debate and is giving rise to sharp tensions that are at the origin of the political hardening and repression against the parties of the opposition. The MSD party of Alexis Sinduhije and radio RPA, which had numerous supporters in Rwanda, are the principal targets of this policy. Since August 2014, the case of the bodies floating on Lake Rweru has durably poisoned the relations between the two countries and demonstrated Rwanda's ability to block international investigations which might have implicated it.

Then, the very busy schedule of presidential elections was to start in Burundi, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and DRC. Burundi was the first, and, just like several of its neighbours, it was confronted with the constitutional question of renewing the mandate of an outgoing president. The disastrous management of the crisis generated by President Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term appeared at first to justify Rwanda’s decision to keep its distance vis-à-vis a regime that was discrediting itself, and various Burundian opponents were openly received in Rwanda.

Things evolved quite differently when the Burundian high command’s attempt to oust the president failed, and when it became clear that Nkurunziza would pursue his objective to the very end, whatever the cost. Rwanda - which had served as a fallback base for the “putschists”- then committed a double mistake in its analysis, as did  a number of western embassies, considering that the Burundian crisis could be put down to purely personal ambitions and overestimating the operational capacities of the opponents. After the assassination of General Adolphe Nshimirimana on August 2, 2015, the failed assassination attempt on Army Chief of Staff  General Prime Niyongabo the following September 11 marked the end of commando operations targeted at high dignitaries of the regime. The same holds true of  the spectacular attacks on military camps on December 11, which showed again how permeable the defences of the armed forces actually were, but above all illustrated the futility of operations with uncertain impact that were not the result of any coordinated strategy. Since then,  the impressive and brutal mobilization of the security forces and youth organizations of the party in power, the lull in the resistance movement at least temporarily, lack of coordination and  demoralization of the militant opponents inside and outside the country all lead one to conclude that the “balance” of power between the respective forces has strongly tipped in favour of the authorities.

Most of the attacks now taking place show how tolerated forms of violence have become commonplace in a specific context of selective impunity, or result from almost suicidal acts committed out of hatred or revenge by youth hunted down as “terrorists”.

Numerous reports recently confirmed that the policy of active and direct support from Rwandan authorities to resistance fighters has been affected by Rwanda’s disappointment at the divisions and organizational laxness among various groups of civil and military refugees in Rwanda. Thus, in addition to international pressure, the absence of clear leadership, political direction and discipline in the Burundian opposition appear to have deterred the Rwandan rulers from pursuing their openly interventionist policy in Burundi, and prompted them to favour instead a strategy of isolating and weakening the neighboring country. This policy does not exclude support and training of Burundian combatants, combined with firm recommendations on matters of organization. 

Competition between two authoritarian regimes 

Order thus largely prevails in Bujumbura and in the country. In less than a year, the policy of strengthening the Burundian repressive apparatus has undoubtedly brought results, be it on matters concerning intelligence, supervision, communication or professionalization of intervention methods. For the chiefs of the National Intelligence Service and Police, this has been undertaken with the explicit aim of catching up in the shortest possible time with “Rwandan standards” and ensuring the symbiosis of intelligence services, police forces and local militia over the whole territory.

However, this “catching-up policy” vis-à-vis the Rwandan neighbour in matters pertaining to an authoritarian State does not stop there. It also includes abolition of public freedoms and closure of almost all independent media, dissolution of the main civil society organizations, proscription of the activities of opposition parties, submission of justice, close and permanent surveillance of the people over the whole territory. All these things the de facto single party considers progress, to such an extent that some CNDD-FDD party managers say Burundi has become more stable and durable than the “Rwandan model” because of the “democratic legitimacy” of its constituency, the Hutu people. “The military regimes lasted for 30 years, we will do better,” they say. This is not a self-announced prophecy, but a resolute determination...

While President Kagame now looks certain to remain in power until at least 2034, it also seems inconceivable that the CNDD-FDD in power in Burundi be prepared to loosen its hold on the country and tolerate the expression of its internal opposition, which it denounces as being supported by Rwanda. The competition between the two authoritarian regimes has become a fact that, given the regional context, is there to last. It justifies the security policies and postpones sine die the expression of democratic forces.

If one adds to this the renewal of president Yoweri Museveni’s mandate in February 2016 (after 30 years in power) and that of president Denis Sassou Nguesso in March 2016 (after 32 years in power), the argument advanced by president Joseph Kabila makes perfect sense. Kabila does not want to be the only head of state in the region not to stay in office when he has only been in power for 15 years. This also helps us understand the concept of democracy still widely used by politicians in the region (and beyond) for international and national consumption (although this is less important) and illustrates the inanity of the unwelcome and paternalistic "observation of election" missions still organized by Western States and institutions. 

International powerlessness  

Since the 1990s, the Great Lakes Region has been affected by a number of large-scale crises. Maintaining international intervention and peacekeeping forces in the region amounts to one of the most costly budgets of the UN system.

All the types of violent conflict have taken place in the diverse countries of the region: politico-ethnic conflicts, secessionist movements, civil wars and genocide, external aggression and interference, foreign occupation and pillaging of mineral resources.

Most processes of negotiations -- protracted and laborious with cohorts of mediators, facilitators, negotiators and other special envoys -- have had military, political or social outcomes. But today’s national political crises, coinciding because of electoral events, do not proceed from any of these scenarios for ending crises.

Current turmoil and unrest certainly connect to varying extents with the factors of tension that have been at the root of the violent conflicts of the past years, but they are directly correlated to the system of governance specific to authoritarian regimes in place: personal power, de facto monopoly of representation, refusal of democratic change, fictional rule of law, growth of repressive apparatus including violent party- or presidency-obedient militias and death squads, restrictions on individual and collective freedoms, etc.

We are referring here to unprecedented “democratic deficit” crises specific to entrenched regimes used to managing and containing opposition with methods that regularly bring into disrepute the “democratic” expression of their citizens during electoral rituals organized since they came  to power. Nevertheless all of these regimes benefit from important external support based on conviction, realism or necessity. And despite their past records, several Heads of State enjoy large international tolerance if not admitted impunity.

In this regard, the Burundian authorities’ decision to use force to reinstate the ruling outgoing team, to reform the constitution and durably secure the grip of the de facto single party CNDD-FDD  really only aligned Burundi with the common political standards of most countries in the region. With hindsight, one can say that the democratic exceptions inherited from the Arusha Accords (an “integrated army” with ethnic parity, independent media, multiparty elections) triggered these developments.

Likewise, condemnation of  Pierre Nkurunziza by his peers was not so much targeted at the brutality of his methods than the unpreparedness and lack of professionalism he had shown vis-à-vis his detractors and the risk of contagion this represented. The repression and brutal normalization that quickly followed showed a strong determination to annihilate any resistance, exactly in the same fashion as in the most authoritarian “democracies”. Also, by denying  opponents of Nkurunziza’s third term  the status of protesters and labelling them  insurgents or terrorists, the regime directly closed the door to any form of diplomatic conversation or “dialogue”,  since it is internationally recognized that one does not debate with “terrorists”.

Since then, the Burundian authorities’ obstinate refusal of any political openness reflects their view that the international community should grant them a level of “understanding” similar to other countries in the region. Any other approach that might be imposed would in their view amount to interference or attempts at intimidation or aggression. This is why the authorities congratulate themselves for having given foreign countries seeking to put  pressure on them a lesson in national firmness and independence. And this is seen as a strong message to the continent in the name of “Pan-Africanism”, from a small country that declares itself a victim of an international plot.

Despite the efforts of some governments and international institutions, the international community’s ineffective peace efforts  raise the double question of the status of democratic frameworks and values, and of the fight against impunity -- two issues on which divisions and opportunism have always characterized international intervention strategies.  

Advancing peace, restoring the hope of the people and helping them to realize their aspirations is first a question of collective credibility and solidarity.


This article was co-published by JusticeInfo.net and The Conversation