Peace talks that were supposed to return normalcy to Burundi are on the deathbed with neither the opposition nor President Pierre Nkurunziza willing to give concessions to move the process forward.
The impasse caused dialogue facilitator, former Tanzanian president, Benjamin Mkapa, to recently call on regional leaders to meet in a special summit and agree on ways of forcing warring parties back to the negotiating table.
The call for the summit was prompted by the refusal by Burundi’s government to attend the recent February talks in Arusha. Nkurunziza’s men boycotted the dialogue in protest of the invitation of certain parties or individuals they accuse of participating in the failed May 2015 coup d’état. Before that, some members of the opposition had also called for the resignation of Mkapa following his reported assertion that Nkurunziza’s government was legitimate.
Mkapa reportedly told journalists in December 2016 that: “I am in no position to determine the legitimacy of the government of Burundi. [But] Elections were held, court cases were raised ... and they all said this is a legitimate process, which has come to a legitimate conclusion.”
And he reportedly added: “Why should we waste so much time discussing an issue that has been solved?”
This assertion riled Nkurunziza’s opponents who wondered how a facilitator could say that that the president’s government is legitimate when the third term that returned him to power was unconstitutional.
To Mkapa, the primary challenge to peace is the unwillingness of contending parties to commit to peace and actually talk. Analytically however, the bigger challenge is lack of clarity on what the problem is and lack of incentives for the protagonists to talk peace.
The current political crisis emanates from Nkurunziza’s third-term bid, which sparked the April 2015 protests and violence.
Thus, while Nkurunziza’s government is legally recognised by international institutions like the UN as Mkapa noted, politically, it is contested. And since legitimacy doesn’t reside only in law or recognition by outsiders but also in the perception of the citizenry, it was inappropriate for Mkapa to ignore this fact.
But, even if we were to ignore the contested nature of Nkurunziza’s third term, it is a cardinal rule for mediators not to publicly take sides or appear to support positions of any of the parties in a conflict.
By publicly affirming the legitimacy of Nkurunziza’s government, which is what his opponents centrally contest, Mkapa not only set himself up for accusations of bias, but the utterance undermined his effort in three other ways.
First, while the announcement alienated him from one of the parties to the conflict, it emboldened Nkurunziza’s side not to give any concessions. Because with the issue of the legitimacy of his government resolved, why should anyone expect Nkurunziza to talk to anyone?
Secondly, by removing the question of legitimacy off the table, Mkapa weakened his hand and ability to attract Nkurunziza to the negotiating table. The best strategy for the facilitator should have been to leave the issue of legitimacy on the table, to use it as a bargaining chip to convince Nkurunziza to give concessions and to also maintain the trust of his opponents.
Finally, there seems to be little co-ordination between Mkapa and regional leaders as it appears he made the aforementioned statement even before briefing leaders.
Listening to some of the individuals involved in the peace process, it is clear that Nkurunziza has been able to convince peacemakers that since power remains in the hands of CNDD-FDD, which is led by a Hutu and who still share power with Tutsis to a certain extent, the question of legitimacy can’t arise.
It therefore appears that since the current conflict isn’t ethnic, peacemakers don’t know how to resolve nor, with legitimacy off the table do they seem to know what exactly the problem is.
Christopher Kayumba, PhD Senior Lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, e-mail: [email protected]; twitter account: @Ckayumba