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BURUNDI: Rebel leader's return a boon for peace prospects

BUJUMBURA, 12 June 2008 (IRIN) - The return from exile of a key rebel leader is a significant development in Burundi's search for peace, but his group and the government need to quickly overcome mutual suspicions and make compromises, according to observers.

"The fact that [Agathon] Rwasa accepted to come to Bujumbura and that talks [took place] in South Africa are good indicators," said Henri Boshoff, an analyst with the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in South Africa. "For the first time, he will directly be part of the talks group."

Rwasa, leader of Burundi's last active armed opposition group, the Palipehutu-Forces nationales de libération (FNL), returned from years of exile in Tanzania on 30 May. Observers said he returned under immense international and regional pressure to pursue peace.

"It is time to look forward and build lasting peace and stability in Burundi," he told cheering supporters at Bujumbura airport. "We are ready to lay down our weapons and bring our combatants to assembly areas."

Days later he flew to South Africa for two days of talks. "The government of Burundi and Palipehutu-FNL renounced violence and undertook to resolve all their differences by dialogue," a communiqué issued after the talks said.

There was also a broad agreement for the group to be accommodated into Burundi’s political and military institutions.

Since Rwasa's return, the guns have been silent. Should they remain so, aid workers in Bujumbura said, many of about 330,000 Burundian refugees in neighbouring countries, and an estimated 100,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs), could be encouraged to go back home.

"The FNL never advocated using weapons," FNL spokesman Pasteur Habimana told IRIN on 6 June. "It was forced to because talks failed. Now that talks are back on, it is out of the question that the farmers will take [up] arms."

Three days earlier, President Pierre Nkurunziza had hailed the presence of FNL leaders in Bujumbura, but warned against further recruitment of fighters. "Recruitment might delay the process to assemble the combatants," he told reporters.

Then he hinted that he wanted FNL fighters to leave the bush soon. "I am calling on the Political Directorate [part of the mediation mechanism] to do everything possible so that the [FNL] combatants assemble as quickly as possible," he added.

However, Habimana urged patience. "The combatants are getting ready to go to cantonment sites, but nothing has been agreed yet on what they would become afterwards," he told IRIN in Bujumbura. "There has to be a political accord and technical force agreement [on] what happens when they leave the cantonments."

Observers read mutual suspicion in the two positions. "Some confidence-building is necessary," a political commentator in Bujumbura, who requested anonymity, said. "The FNL leaders still fear to talk openly about their plans. On the other hand, the government has yet to say what exactly it is putting on the table."

Himself a former guerrilla leader, Nkurunziza was elected president in 2005 under an agreement brokered by the African Union and the UN. The FNL refused to be part of that pact, but months later signed a separate agreement with the government. That deal soon stalled, however, and clashes resumed.

Still in the woods

Ordinary Burundians remain cautious - closely watching developments. "It is difficult to believe that the clashes are about to end - until all the people [FNL fighters] in the hills come down," said taxi driver Ramathan Asuman.

The hills of Bujumbura Rural province, where hundreds of FNL fighters are believed to be holed up, tower over the city. "In the past, the FNL have come into town ostensibly to talk and days later walked back to the hills to resume shelling us," Asuman added.

It was from these hills that FNL fire power came raining down on the suburb of Kabezi, 20 km from the capital, in May - shattering expectations among many Burundians that the government and the FNL were about to clinch a new deal to end conflict which has over 15 years killed an estimated 300,000 people.

The May attack left 33 people dead and prompted at least 20,000 to flee their homes. It violated a September 2006 ceasefire agreement and led Nkurunziza to call for sanctions against the FNL.

Eventually, the army pushed the rebels back into the hills. On 25 May, the FNL agreed a new ceasefire with the government. Three days later, the police released 102 detainees, alleged FNL supporters, in 'a gesture of good faith from the government'.

Some Bujumbura residents faulted the timing of the president's appeal for sanctions. "One can understand the frustration, but he should have been more tactful - the FNL was already under [international] pressure to stop fighting," a businessman who requested anonymity told IRIN. "What he did was to build more mistrust."

Then the police rounded up hundreds more suspected FNL supporters. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), at least 300 people were detained 'solely as suspected members of a movement long opposed to the government'.

Many remain in custody - reportedly crowded into irregular detention sites, including military installations. "Some people have been in detention for weeks, even though Burundian law clearly prohibits holding anyone without charge for more than seven days," Alison Des Forges, senior advisor to HRW's Africa division, said.

Outstanding issues

Since Rwasa's return, the FNL has resumed attending meetings of the Joint Verification and Monitoring Mechanism in Bujumbura, which it had quit in July 2007, and discussed the cantonment of its fighters.

The group claims to have 15,000 men, but sources in Bujumbura put their strength at no more than 3,000, including hundreds of children.

FNL military spokesman Anatole Bacanamwo said they would like three cantonment sites set up in each of the provinces where their presence is greatest. These include Bujumbura Rural, Bubanza, Kayanza and Cibitoke.

So far the government is insisting on two sites countrywide, saying the FNL numbers do not justify many sites.

Other sticking points were yet to be tackled - including power-sharing, the constitutional recognition of the FNL as a political party and demobilisation of fighters.

Habimana declined to discuss the power-sharing arrangements the FNL would propose. "We cannot share a cow when we do not have it yet," he said. "It would be a mistake."

The ISS’s Boshoff said the group would have to make compromises. "I do not think power-sharing will occur; what is the basis? I do not think the FNL fighters are that significant any more," he told IRIN on 10 June. "They will have to accept whatever they are given - they cannot afford to be picky any more."

Habimana wants Palipehutu-FNL to be recognised as a political party. As far as the government is concerned, the group must first change its name, which is short for Party for the Liberation of the Hutu People. The government pointed out that another FNL wing gained official recognition only after it changed its name to Palipe-Agakiza.

"Anything related to changing the name of Palipehutu-FNL must refer to the constitution which actually orders political parties with an ethnic brand to change their names," explained presidential spokesman Leonidas Hatungimana.

Habimana dismissed the idea of a name change. “If the parliament does not amend the constitution, we shall request a referendum," he said.


Theme(s): (IRIN) Conflict, (IRIN) Governance, (IRIN) Refugees/IDPs


Copyright © IRIN 2008
This material comes to you via IRIN, the humanitarian news and analysis service of the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the United Nations or its Member States.
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