14 December 2016

East Africa: Searching for Peace, Burundians Now Turn to Their Roots

Photo: The Citizen
Army soldiers stand near a barricade surrounded by a crowd of protesters (file photo).

Bujumbura — Gitega, a town located 65 kilometres east of the Burundian capital, is one place whose past will touch the emotions of the people a country for years torn by violent conflicts.

The town is sandwiched between the mist-covered mountains in the central highlands, almost about the same distance from the Tanzanian border.

Historical records indicate that it was once the capital of the country until shortly before independence in 1962.

Although the capital was relocated to the present seat years later, Gitega retained its position as the home of the Burundi National Museum.

At one time also, it was the seat of the monarchy when the country adored the traditional leaders as was the case in other area of the Great Lakes Region. A royal court still stands there as are royal drum sanctuaries. It was due to its strategic role in the country's affairs that Gitega tested a bitter side of Burundi's history.

When King Ntare V was overthrown in the famous military coup d'etat of 1966 which disbanded monarchy in Burundi, he fled the area for a few years.

But when he reinstated his kingdom in 1972, he was assassinated and that opened another chapter of the country's tragic history. The country was plunged into one of the most horrific bloodsheds, leading to the killing of nearly 300,000 in the massacre which bore hallmarks of a genocide in neighbouring Rwanda two decades later.

The bitter fighting pitted the Hutu against the Tutsi, the major ethnic groups in Burundi.

The town was not spared either by the chaos that began in the late 1980s through to as late as a decade ago. It was among the areas severely affected by inter-ethnic fighting.

While on April 26th 1996, the army attacks killed some 230 civilians at Buhoro village, on October 21st, the same year some 70 Tutsi students were burnt alive at Kibimba.

Maybe due to the horrific events of the past, Gitega is playing a critical role in bringing Burundians together in an internal dialogue for peace.

The dialogue has been initiated since early this year by the government and other interested groups who are keen to bring peace among the people of Burundi irrespective of ethnic origin, political or religious affiliation and economic status.

The dialogue taking place in the 'up country' city runs parallel with the Inter-Burundi Dialogue initiated by the East African Community (EAC) partner states with the support of the development partners.

What takes place in Gitega is different from the mediation process being undertaken by the EAC under former president Benjamin Mkapa.

In the latter, the mediators would only meet representatives of the political parties, influential politicians and other groups.

In Gitega, almost every Burundian who can make it there is invited to contribute to his or her ideas on how to bring about a lasting peace to the country which has been wrecked by waves of inter-ethnic fighting at different times during the last 30 years.

Those who turn up are given a chance to air their views on how peace can be brought into the country. Before giving their side on the possible solutions, they will tell what they thought were the likely causes of the bloody conflicts of the past and present.

Unlike the Mkapa-led dialogue, the peace process at Gitega is undertaken in an open air and open to everybody. Due to this, it can be viewed as being more transparent unlike the indoor sittings of Mkapa negotiating team.

It could not be established which of the two processes has shown much prospects. But recent trends had indicated that the Internal Dialogue was moving ahead much faster than the one initiated by regional leaders and donors.

At the end of last week's mediation talks in Bujumbura chaired by the former Tanzanian leader, some of the negotiators attached to it took time to visit Gitega to witness how it operated. They plan to copy the model and see if it can be applied in the EAC initiated talks.

Inter-Burundi Dialogue is also one of the favourite peace options by President Pierre Nkurunziza although criticised by his opponents who fled the country at the height of the bloody clashes in Bujumbura last year.

Opposition leaders in exile have repeatedly described the dialogue taking place at Gitega as a government-sponsored ploy by the current regime to convince the international community that, indeed, the authorities were keen on the mediation efforts.

It is in Gitega where President Nkurunziza, who rarely appears in public at least in the last couple of months, is reported to spend most of his time outside Bujumbura. The head of state, who has not traveled out of Burundi since May last year, would also stay for longer periods at his rural home of Ngozi, according to other sources.

Over 500 people have died, mostly in the capital Bujumbura, since April last year following repeated clashes between the protesters and the security forces. There had been killings associated with the government crackdown on the armed groups and those of targeted individuals, including army generals and influential politicians. Nearly 300,000 have fled to neighbouring countries, including Tanzania, as refugees. A Tanzanian diplomat, who was in Bujumbura last week, said although the security situation has tremendously improved compared to the chaotic past, she was still worried after the recent gun attack on Willy Nyamitwe, an advisor to the president during which one of his body guards was killed.

The talks got underway as EAC came under fire from the opposition groups in exile that EAC could be part of the problem allegedly for siding with the government in Bujumbura which they claim came to power last year through unconstitutional means.

The EAC has rubbished the claims, saying it was only a facilitator to the mediation talks and that it was not siding with any group or political party in finding a solution to the political crisis in its member state.

"We are only facilitating the dialogue. We are not supporting the government or the opposition in this process," affirmed one senior official of the Community, visibly disturbed by twitter messages sent to the regional organisation by the opposition groups in exile.

However, the EAC official who spoke on condition of anonymity, defended the move to relocate the Dialogue process to Bujumbura, saying the Burundi government was equally a key stakeholder in the talks as are significant number of opposition groups based in the country.

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