Burundi’s crisis mirrors what most incumbents in the Great Lakes are doing. As the situation deteriorated, an unusually activist African Union raised the red flag. Has Nkurunziza’s rejection of AU peace-keepers triggered the spectre of a wider regional conflict? Maybe. But it is not the morality of term limits that needs to be examined, argues Angelo Izama, it is the matrix of regional military and political histories.
It was rumoured, by the kind of people for whom this is not really a rumour, that hours after a coup had been announced in Burundi, a senior member of the Ugandan intelligence service, along with an aide, made a secret visit to Bujumbura.
The mission was pretty simple – to try and avoid a more serious clash within Burundi’s mostly intra-Hutu conflict that had long been simmering. The decision by the president, Pierre Nkurunziza, to run for another term was poorly timed. Across the border in Rwanda a political storm was brewing over President Paul Kagame’s so-called “third term”. But the image of bodies’ macheted and left desecrated on the street recalled the bad days. At the border between Rwanda and Uganda, refugees were again lining up in their hundreds.
There is a reason why this region has some of the largest refugee camps. War is always afoot even if violence takes place on a much smaller scale.
Africa’s civil wars, especially its regional conflicts, may be receding but political violence is still evident. The rise of election-related killings typifies how the era of roaming and marauding armies has now been replaced with the age of praetorian guards jealously defending entrenched presidents from potential rivals.
In Uganda in 2011, street protests showed this new fragility might have longer-lasting damaging effects. Regional experts have however been more concerned about DR Congo, Rwanda and Burundi. In the case of Burundi today, violent internal competition has ushered in a low-intensity civil war, which has drawn in the AU and the UN.
However the real fear is military intervention. If this particular episode in Burundi persists, Rwanda could intervene, with all the consequences that would accompany such an intervention. It is not as if the two countries are different, at least in the sense that their presidents have shuffled the rules to retain power. It is that the old ethnic tension that occasioned the worst of the violence in the 1990s, the time of the great wars, is still very much lurking under the surface.
This question is what needs answering. First, whether it is likely that Rwanda will intervene and secondly, if that intervention could have a domino effect and draw in neighbouring states into another era of regional war. The answer to both questions: “not likely”.
The reason is that the consolidation of political power within the Great Lakes by presidents Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Joseph Kabila of DR Congo and Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi has in many ways been a singular political story. It does not stop even with the issue of the third term, the formula of which, in the Great Lakes, is being passed around from country to country like stolen exam papers. It is much bigger.
The relationship between these leaders goes back to the 1990s and in some cases even earlier. As a matter of fact all the presidents can be said to have fought in one long war – the one that came to be referred to as Africa’s world war.
In more than one instance, these leaders have fought in the same army. Paul Kagame, for example, was once Museveni’s military intelligence chief; young Joseph Kabila cut his military teeth in Kagame’s RPF as it marched to Kinshasa.
In recent times these military men have turned politicians, with ambitions to long remain leaders of their countries. Unlike in the past, during the era of antagonism, the theme is one of co-operation.
The events in Burundi in my view must be seen as reflecting not a fear about renewed regional war but quite the opposite. Support for Pierre Nkurunziza is pretty high, not diminishing. It was President Yoweri Museveni who as chair, for 10 years, of the Burundi peace process helped forge the political and military agreements that led to the Arusha peace accords.
Burundi later joined Uganda as a troop contributor in Somalia but the personal relationships run deep within the ruling elites in both countries. While Burundi shares the same ethnic genes as Rwanda, and a traumatically similar history of conflict, its power-sharing constitution is seen as a triumph for these relations. It is unlikely that intervention by either Rwanda or Uganda would further weaken Nkurunziza’s position.
More likely is that an attempt would be made to strengthen his position as an anchor of the state in Burundi. This, at least as far as Uganda is concerned, appears to be in keeping with its recent stance especially in South Sudan, where the violence is far worse than in Burundi and far more likely to destabilise the region.
As for the comments that are attributed to President Kagame about intervention, they cannot be completely ruled out. Antagonism between the two men benefits Nkurunziza more than it hurts him. NA