Will the Burundi Cease-Fire Hold?

Daniel Teng’o, World Press Review correspondent, Nairobi, Kenya, Dec. 20, 2002

A Burundian student returns home to Gatumba, Oct. 12, 2002 (Photo: AFP).
Since fighting between ethnic Hutu rebels and the Tutsi-led government of Burundi began in 1993, more than 200,000 people—mostly civilians—have been killed. An estimated 700,000 Burundians have been left homeless. Fruitless peace talks have come in fits and starts since 1998. With each failure, the fighting has continued and the toll of the war has continued to mount.

So the Dec. 3 signing of a cease-fire accord between the Burundian government and the largest ethnic Hutu rebel group has brought renewed hope to the central African country and to the region.

Within days of the agreement, however, the army and the rebels were accusing each other of breaking the cease-fire agreement. On Dec. 11, an army spokesperson told reporters the army had used artillery to “free positions that were encircled by rebels,” but acknowledged that it was difficult to distinguish rebels from groups that had signed the agreement from those that had not. Rebel groups condemned what it called the army’s “blind bombardments, which have been the first violation of the cease-fire agreement.”

Burundian army sources told reporters seven people were killed in the incidents and that “several” houses had been burnt down. The deal between the Tutsi-led transitional government headed by Pierre Buyoya and Pierre Nkurunziza's faction of the Conseil national pour la defense de la democratie-Forces pour la defense de la democratie (CNDD-FDD) capped the 19th regional summit on Burundi to end the protracted civil war.

Burundi, like its neighbor Rwanda, is divided between ethnic Hutu and Tutsi groups. Fighting began in 1993, when mutinying soldiers murdered President Melchior Ndadaye, the country’s first-ever Hutu president. In the violence that followed the assassination, hundreds of thousands of Burundians lost their lives. A few months later, Hutus in neighboring Rwanda sought to exterminate that country’s Tutsis. An estimated 800,000 people died within the space of 100 days.

Though the violence in Rwanda stopped years ago and the country has since begun the long process of healing its wounds, it was only on Dec. 3, 2002, that Burundi’s Tutsis and Hutus agreed to a cease-fire.

But even as Buyoya and Nkurunziza reaffirmed their commitment to bring an end to the war that has ravaged the landlocked country for almost a decade, many expressed fears that the agreement would not hold because it had only been signed under the unremitting pressure exerted on the two groups by regional leaders.

Meeting in the Tanzanian commercial capital Dar es Salaam, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who chaired the talks, Tanzanian President Jacob Zuma, and envoys from South Africa, Kenya, and Ethiopia all threw their collective weight behind the efforts. Museveni was even heard congratulating both sides before the deal was signed.

In what may be a harbinger of trouble to come, the CNDD-FDD protested that a clause had been removed without its consent, momentarily throwing the entire enterprise in question just as the initial signing ceremony was about to begin. The agreement was rewritten and hastily signed, but CNDD-FDD representatives indicated the incident had damaged their trust in the government’s intentions.

But even given the pressure from regional negotiators, it was notable that “it took the leaders of the Great Lakes countries, who are brokers of the peace initiative, two sleepless nights to get the leader of CNDD-FDD, Pierre Nkurunziza, to put his signature on the agreement,” wrote Tanzania’s government-owned Daily News on Dec. 4.

Regional and world leaders immediately praised the agreement. In South Africa, Deputy President Jacob Zuma called the agreement “another victory for Africa.” Kofi Annan wired his congratulations. But the sense of triumph was also tempered by stern warnings of sanctions against Agathon Rwasa’s Parti Pour la Liberation du Peuple Hutu-Force Nationale de Liberation (Palipehutu-FNL), one of the only remaining rebel groups that has yet to join the peace process. Palipehutu-FNL, which has refused to end its insurgency against the government, is active mainly around the capital, Bujumbura, where it has reportedly caused been responsible for widespread destruction.

The group scuppered the last attempt to strike a peace deal, when regional leaders gathered on Oct. 7 in Dar es Salaam and directed the transitional government and two armed rebel groups to enter into cease-fire negotiations immediately and to come to an agreement within 30 days. Palipehutu-FNL intensified its operations; the regional leaders protested, but did not place sanctions on the group.

All of this recalled the scene in Arusha two years ago, where a previous agreement for peace in Burundi was hurriedly signed, only to be ignored by the combatants.

This time, when summit delegates met again to discuss progress, they agreed to give the recalcitrant parties an extra two weeks, until Dec. 3, to come to an agreement. The cease-fire accord, the product of these last-minute talks, allowed the parties 72 hours to stop fighting. Aside from the skirmishes reported on Dec. 11, it appears they have.

Among the most important clauses in the cease-fire deal were promises to integrate the rebels into Burundi’s Tutsi-controlled army and transitional government. Plans for integration are to be worked out during political negotiations following the start of the cease-fire on Dec. 30.

Though President Buyoya has agreed to hand over power to a Hutu by May 2003, observers feel that failure to ensure a Palipehutu-FNL disarmament could easily derail the government’s plans. Last year saw two attempted army coups against President Buyoya, who himself came to power through a putsch. In recent weeks there have been rumors of a third.

“We have no problem with the phased transition to peace in Burundi, but we are not reassured by the absence of a time-frame for that kind of process and the lack of safeguards against default,” opined the Daily News on Dec. 4.

“Although the deal throws a lifeline to the year-old transitional government, which has looked increasingly brittle, it fails to include the other Hutu rebels, the smaller National Liberation Front (FNL). Instead of entering talks, the 3,000-strong FNL remains perched on the hills above the capital, Bujumbura, from where it regularly shells the city’s outskirts or mounts guerrilla attacks on army positions. The Tutsi-led army responds with equal, or often greater, violence,” observed Britain’s liberal The Independenton Dec. 4.

According to The Independent, the FNL says it is fighting to turn the clock back on Burundi’s political landscape to 1993, when a democratically elected Hutu briefly held power before being assassinated by Tutsi paratroopers.

It its Dec. 4 editorial, the Daily News’s editors wrote, “We appreciate the fact that the warring parties in Burundi cannot be bulldozed to accede to a peace deal but we think they have an obligation to depict real commitment to end the senseless civil war in their country, which has already claimed hundreds of thousands of their people.”

For the people of Burundi, the latest peace deal is a much-needed source of hope. In this country of rolling hills and valleys, with its moderate climate, one in five children dies before the age of 5 and average life expectancy is 41. Currently, more than a million people are at risk of starvation. Despite the fact that Burundi exports coffee and nickel, the United Nations has ranked it the third-poorest country in the world.

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