Global Policy Forum

Burundi Inches Closer to Peace


By Betniko Kayaya

Times of Zambia
July 5, 2006

On Saturday, June 18, 2006, regional leaders, among them Vice-President Lupando Mwape, converged in the Tanzanian commercial capital Dar-es-salaam in their renewed and continued search for lasting peace in Burundi. The meeting, like others before, marked another milestone in putting the tiny but potentially rich East African state back on the path of reconciliation, peace and national development after years of bloody hostilities in which thousands of Burundians have been maimed, displaced and killed.

Despite the adoption of a new constitution and resultant elections that saw the formation in August last year of a new power-sharing government headed by former Hutu rebel leader Pierre Nkurunziza, the National Liberation Forces, Palipehutu- FNL, the last active rebel group, had remained outside the Burundi peace process and its fighters continued to wage a mild insurgency in areas surrounding the Burundian capital Bujumbura.

After repeated overtures for peace from the Burundi government, the FNL split into two groups late last year with one faction vowing to keep up the fight and the other seeking a negotiated settlement. But recently, South African President, Thabo Mbeki, offered his country's services as mediator and appointed his Safety and Security minister, Charles Nqakula, to oversee the peace talks.

Expectations were high on the coastal foggy and rainy morning of Saturday, June 18 as dignitaries from the region and beyond arrived to witness what was dubbed "Historic Signing of a Comprehensive Ceasefire" at the plush Movenpick Royal Palm Hotel in the heart of Dar-es-Salaam. According to the programme, the signing ceremony was due to take place at noon after a brief closed -door consultation among the heads of state and the signatories to the peace pact.

But not unusual, this was not to be as it soon emerged that serious differences had arisen between the Burundi government team and the Palipehutu-FNL. Potential of a deadlock was evident earlier in the day when one of the key players Burundi President, Pierre Nkurunziza, in unexplained circumstances, delayed his arrival for the event fuelling speculations that the signing ceremony would not take off after all.

The real cause of the impasse could not be immediately ascertained but sources said differences on the nature and content of the documents to be signed were at the core of the stalemate. Later when asked to comment on the deadlock, the FNL maintained that as far as they were concerned, what was agreed upon to be signed that day was a document on the 'principles and modalities' for negotiations to pave way for a comprehensive ceasefire.

"As far as we are concerned, we are not here to sign a comprehensive ceasefire document as proposed by our counterparts. So many peace agreements have been signed in the past but none of them has been upheld and implemented because they have not addressed the root cause of hostilities in our country," said FNL spokesperson Pasteur Habimana.

Pasteur Habimana blamed President Nkurunziza for the deadlock by insisting on the comprehensive ceasefire agreement before ironing out various contentious issues which have been the source of the civil war in Burundi over the years. These include the demand by the FNL to be recognised as a legitimate political party and provision of immunity and security for its members and leaders in Burundi.

The FNL also wants the Burundi people to speak freely and truthfully on the history and genesis of their society as a way of finding a permanent solution to ethnic tensions. Head of the rebel group Agathon Rwassa sums up the demands: "In total, we want the government to put in place a system that would respond to the needs of the whole nation as well as a review of the country's constitution."

On the other hand, the Burundi government contended that it would not accept anything short of a comprehensive ceasefire by the time of departure from Dar es Salaam. Chief of delegation Brigadier-General, Evariste Ndayishimiye, said from his government's point of view, negotiations had gone very well under the midwifery of the South African and Tanzanian governments and an agreement was reached on all the issues raised by the FNL.

General Ndayishimiye who is minister of home affairs and public security explained that the signing of a ceasefire was necessary to provide a platform for the restoration of durable peace in Burundi. "President Nkurunziza means well. He remains committed to peace, that's why he is here and ready to sign the ceasefire agreement as soon as our colleagues are ready," said Gen Ndayishimiye.

The stand-off persisted with neither side willing to back down on their demands. Closed door negotiations and consultations led by Mr Mbeki and his facilitator Mr Nqakula then intensified late into the night until the following day when a compromise breakthrough was announced. And this was that the Burundi government and the rebel Palipehutu-FNL would sign a peace accord that would bind and pave the way for a comprehensive ceasefire in two weeks time.

Announcing the development before a weary but anxious audience, Tanzanian president who is also vice-chairman of the regional peace initiative Jakaya Kikwete said the history of Burundi was strewn with blood and violence and it was now time to bring reconciliation and lasting peace to the country. The Tanzanian president observed that the impact of the civil war on life and property in Burundi was incalculable. Mr Kikwete however paid glowing tribute to Mr Nkurunziza and the rebel FNL for choosing to tread the path of reconciliation at long last, adding that war cannot be used to prevent another war.

Mr Nqakula speaking before he invited the two parties to sign the peace accord, said the warring parties had shown their willingness to see peace in their country. Mr Nqakula said the agreement reached that day would set up principles and modalities for moving the peace process to finality. "The articles in the document to be signed in a moment, create the necessary space in the search for lasting peace in Burundi,' said Mr Nqakula. He said the articles would be signed by Gen Ndayishimiye and FNL chairman Agathon Rwassa.

Gen Ndayishimiye and Rwassa hesitated to append their signatures for a couple of minutes as they made last minute consultations on certain articles. After signing, the two leaders shook hands twice to the applause of dignitaries who included Mr Mwape. The leaders urged the two parties to lay down arms and engage themselves in tackling the challenges of poverty facing their country and Africa at large. They implored the warring parties to ensure they attain the objectives of the peace accord within two weeks as agreed.

Mr Mwape said after the signing ceremony that Zambia was excited that at long last, a firm foundation had been laid for peace in Burundi. He said it was comforting to note that both the Burundi government and the FNL were represented at the signing ceremony at the highest level - an indication of the seriousness and commitment they attached to the peace process in their country. "Zambia is happy with this development and we pledge our continued support until full and final results are achieved to end the war in Burundi, "said Mr Mwape.

Zambia's contribution to the Burundi peace process and the region at large is mammoth. Both President Mwanawasa and his immediate predecessor, Dr Frederick Chiluba, have played a key role in the restoration of peace in that country. President Mwanawasa has been a member of the Core Group on the Great Lakes peace process which has been behind the peace efforts this far.

"When your neighbour is not at peace, you are not at peace either. So, we are happy that through the tireless efforts of our leaders, peace is finally in sight in Burundi," said Zambia's High Commissioner to Tanzania Professor Royson Mukwena.

Professor Mukwena said Burundi regards Zambia as its leading trading partner in the region with sugar, cement and other construction materials being Zambia's principal exports to that country. He said he has also received inquiries from the Burundi government and the Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Zambia to consider exporting cassava to that country.

"There is a yawning market for these products in Burundi and with the brightening peace prospects, Zambian entrepreneurs should rise to the occasion and increase exports to earn the much needed foreign exchange," said Prof Mukwena.

Prof Mukwena said the potential for increased trade is strengthened by the fact that Zambia and Burundi share the waters of Lake Tanganyika, making the movement of people, goods and services cheaper and faster between the two countries. By signing the peace accord, a foundation has been laid for durable peace in Burundi.

The outside world will help as it has always done. But ultimately the choice for peace lies in the hands of the Burundian leaders themselves by translating their signatures into action so that for once, the country can be at peace and take its rightful place among nations.




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