27 February 2016

East Africa: When Bujumbura Baits Kigali, Be Very Afraid

Photo: EAC
Flags belonging to the EAC member states.

So, this thing between Rwanda and Burundi, where is it going?

Burundi has accused Rwanda of arming Burundian refugees who have fled the violence at home, so they can return and wage war.

Rwanda rejects the allegations, and in turn says Bujumbura is hobnobbing with anti-Kigali FDLR rebels, remnants of the forces that carried out the 1994 genocide, now based in eastern DR Congo.

Enter a group of UN experts who reported to the Security Council that indeed Rwanda was arming refugees. The US also weighed in, saying Rwanda should not train or arm Burundian refugees.

Then France too jumped in the fray, saying a UN police should be deployed in Burundi to quell the violence there.

On the face of it, there is nothing untoward in that. However, Paul Kagame's Rwanda has had a long and rocky relationship with France, whom the ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) still sees as an accomplice in the slaughter of the Tutsi during the genocide.

Unsurprisingly, in Rwanda, France's suggestions were viewed with suspicion. Some journalists and commentators even claimed on Twitter that it was a plot by France to have a UN police in which it has influence, on the border with Rwanda in order to destabilise it.

The risk in these developments is evident in Rwanda's proposal to relocate Burundi refugees, leading the same UN whose experts said they are being armed, to plead with Kigali to hold its horses.

This is an explosive cocktail. Clearly Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza has discovered that opposing the intervention of foreign forces, even be they African Union peacekeepers, in his country's crisis is good politics.

But Rwanda seems to have become the perfect bogeyman.

On the other hand, for reasons to do with the 1994 genocide, Rwanda is very touchy about persecution of the Tutsi diaspora in Central Africa. It may be the calculation of Bujumbura that it is easy to bait Kigali into get involved -- directly or through proxy, as was the case with the Banyamulenge in DRC -- if you threaten them with slaughter.

For it to stand by and do nothing, will make the RPF's view of itself as the force that "ended the genocide" meaningless. And it will lose a large part of its justification for being in power.

And that is why the Burundi crisis is very dangerous. Unlike the recent madness in South Sudan, or the Central African Republic, its escalation can only end in an inter-state war.

Tanzania, which over the years has come to see Burundi as its sphere of influence of sorts, will also stick its foot in, no doubt.

That is something that hasn't happened in the Great Lakes region since after the ouster of Congolese dictator Mobutu Sese Seko in 1997 and the period following the assassination of his successor Laurent Kabila in 2001; and the beginning of the Sudan talks in Nairobi in 2003.

The last lap of South Sudan Independence started there, and also the beginnings of the end of the Uganda Khartoum proxy war over the former's support for the Sudan People's Liberation Army, and the latter's for the Lord's Resistance Army.

And this is why the region and the world must act more seriously to bring a resolution to the Burundi violence. The alternative could be hell.

Charles Onyango-Obbo is editor of Mail & Guardian Africa.

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