28 May 2016

East Africa: Nkurunziza is Stonewalling, Who Will Force His Mouth Open?

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With President Pierre Nkurunziza missing out on the Inter-Burundi Dialogue which resumed on 21 May in Arusha, it appears that the prospects for a quick resolution have all but may be diluted.

In the manner of many such peace talks around the region, the Burundi talks will be a long-drawn-out affair. The talks, which are being held under the leadership of former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa, are off to a rocky start.

As the Facilitator of the process, Mkapa has himself been optimistic, saying he will be available to meet all the stakeholders who were invited to attend the Arusha Dialogue but were not able to do so due to various reasons. While it is only fair for him to do so, the reality of the situation is likely to turn out quite differently.

The lesson from the talks in South Sudan and other conflict zones is quite clear: Belligerents will rarely sit willingly at a table to give concessions. In South Sudan, the cat-and-mouse game between the government team led by President Salva Kiir and that of former rebel leader Dr Riek Machar only ended with a lot of international pressure.

With the government holding the upper hand for now, it is not surprising that President Nkurunziza would absent himself from such important talks that are meant to end the crisis in his country. If that intransigence continues, the result will no doubt be an escalation of the conflict.

Indeed, without the blessings of the government in power, nothing tangible can come out of the talks. The whole effort will degenerate into a to-and-fro fiasco, a delaying tactic as Mkapa faithfully shuttles from one party to the other.

With sufficient goodwill, this would have been avoided. There is no duty of state that can be more important for the president of a country in conflict than a dialogue meant to end the bloodshed. This snub - for that is what it is - will be extremely costly for Burundi, which has the second lowest GDP per capita in the world.

Unfortunately, the absence of a strong military protagonist to counter the government forces in Burundi has denied the country the kind of international limelight that eventually forced the South Sudanese to the negotiation table. Yet, the eventual militarization that will result from this conflict will cause enormous suffering, especially for vulnerable groups such as women and children.

The real work in resolving the crisis in Burundi, therefore, lies mainly outside the Arusha International Conference Centre. It will the concerted efforts of regional countries and international players to force President Nkurunziza to sit on the same table with his adversaries. The earlier this is done, the better it will be for the people of Burundi.

But are East African countries in a position to offer leadership in this matter? This can hardly be said to be the case. Virtually all the partner states are themselves, in varying degrees, falling into the same trap as Burundi: They are becoming increasingly intolerant of opposition, and are not averse to misusing the instruments of state power to unleash violence on their opponents.

While Burundi is the region's immediate concern, the suppression of dissent in East Africa could well explode in a series of armed movements across the region. The easy access to small firearms will no doubt make this attractive for those whose voice has been stifled.

As Mkapa engages those who have shown readiness to discuss the crisis in Burundi, it is of utmost importance that the whole region should support his efforts and do whatever it takes to bring about a lasting solution to the conflict. If such steps are not taken urgently and seriously, we are likely to see a replication of the Burundi conflict elsewhere in the region.

In Kenya, ethnic tensions are already at fever pitch, with the government seemingly dismissing the opposition, to the point of using live bullets against demonstrators seeking the ouster of officials of the Independent Electoral and Boundaries Commission. In Uganda, too, President Yoweri Museveni has shown that he is clearly unwilling to negotiate and will not hesitate to intimidate opponents using the armed forces. These two countries are setting the stage for future Burundi-type scenarios.

The way East Africa tackles the Burundi talks will set a precedent, positive or negative, with huge repercussions for the future. The region cannot afford to be indifferent.

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