Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Rebels clash in Burundi

At least 5,000 civilians have fled Burundi’s capital Bujumbura after 21 people were killed in clashes between two rival rebel groups yesterday. The fighting was the worst in the capital in two years and has revived fears that Burundi’s political deadlock could spill over into fresh conflict. City mayor Elias Buregure said the fighting erupted between the mainstream National Liberation Forces (FNL) and a group of 200 dissidents who said they no longer recognised FNL chief Agathon Rwasa as their leader. "The FNL rebels' attack is a serious violation of the ceasefire,” said Burundi’s Defence Minister Germain Niyoyankana. “We will not tolerate another aggression of the kind.”

The Palipehutu-FNL rebel movement is the last one of seven original Burundian rebel groups not to have signed a peace agreement with the government. Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza and FNL chief Rwasa are expected to meet within days in Tanzania as part of a regional summit, in which neighbouring countries and South African mediators will also take part. The pair met in Dar es Salaam in June where they agreed to reactivate a ceasefire agreement signed nine months ago.

According to the International Crisis Group’s (ICG) report “Burundi: Finalising peace with the FNL” Burundi has made substantial progress in democracy and easing of inter-ethnic tensions. The former government’s security forces have integrated with CNDD-FDD rebels in a new national defence force. However, the ICG says the peace process remains fragile. A genuine peace agreement is needed with the FNL, who are the last active rebel group. The rebels are not strong enough to fight a new war but remain a power in most western provinces. This also needs a new commitment by the government to a negotiated solution that does not involve military options as well as a revived facilitation effort by Burundi’s neighbours.

The report goes on to state that regional states and the wider international community should be prepared to impose serious sanctions on the rebel group if they do not honour their commitments to disarm. For its part, the FNL must clearly state how it expects its main demands for integration into the security forces and political institutions to be met François Grignon, Crisis Group’s Africa programme director said that if the government continues to snub the rebels’ repeated demands for integration, “the rebels will never disarm and will continue to undermine the consolidation of peace in Burundi.”

Burundi gained its independence from Belgium in 1962. Almost immediately ethnic violence erupted between Hutu and Tutsi groups. As with neighbouring Rwanda the population had been divided into separate ethnic groups by the colonial power. According to the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi there is no distinguishing physical, religious, linguistic or colour characteristics yet individuals do identify with one of three ethnic groups, Hutu, Tutsi and Twa.

There have been three major conflicts in the country since independence. The most recent civil war began in 1993 following the assassination of Hutu president Melchior Ndadaye just four months after winning power. The war dragged on through the 1990s between the majority Hutu faction and the minority Tutsis. It was exacerbated by a blockade by neighbouring countries that crippled the economy. After 200,000 died in the conflict, the warring factions were finally brought to the peace table in 2000 and resulted in the signing of Arusha Agreement. At the time, more than 700,000 people were refugees – almost 10 per cent of its population.

However not all rebel groups signed the agreement. The FLN and others continued the armed rebellion as a three-year transitional government was established under the leadership of Pierre Buyoya. In 2003 he was succeeded by Domitien Ndayizeye. Ndayizeye and the leader of the main Hutu rebel movement signed a peace accord in Dar es Salaam in November that year, while a smaller rebel group was given three months to open talks or face consequences. While talks with the rebels dragged on, the people of Burundi exercised their right to a democratic vote in 2005 for the first time in 11 years. Pierre Nkurunziza a former Hutu rebel leader and born-again Christian won a mandate to bring peace and prosperity to the region.

It will be a significant challenge. Today Burundi remains one of the poorest countries in the world. In 2003 the World Bank estimated per capita annual income at $110. The UN ranked Burundi 169 out of 177 countries in the UNDP (United Nations Development Program) human development index. The 2005 report of the Secretary General on the UN operation in Burundi (pdf) estimated that 90 percent of the population relied on subsistence farming for a living in a country which suffered three successive drought years. 68 per cent of the population are living below the poverty line. Much of the country is devastated with land mines. Meanwhile the disability and death rate from malaria, HIV/AIDS and other diseases have increased. Pierre Nkurunziza will need more than the comfort of his religion to build a better Burundi.

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