A hill on the common border between Rwanda and Burundi has become the unlikely focus of the tense relations between the two neighbours in the New Year.
Both countries have since 2007 been claiming the ridge located between the southern district of Gisagara in Rwanda and the northern Burundian province of Ngozi. The hill is subject of determination by a joint border demarcation commission.
This however, did not stop Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza from asserting in his New Year speech that the hill, known as Sabanegwa in Rwanda and Sabanerwa in Burundi, is part of Bujumbura’s territory.
“Sabanerwa hill has never belonged to Rwanda. It has belonged to Burundi since time immemorial. I grew up in that area and I know this very well. But we are waiting for the report from those handling the dispute,” said the president.
The dispute originated from the River Akanyaru — which has been used as a natural border between the two countries — changing course and riverbed over the years, and now the hill is on the Rwandan side.
Last October, Burundian officials alleged that Rwandan soldiers in their dozens had pitched camp on the disputed hill and demolished the house of the only Burundian family inhabiting the hill, describing it as an act of provocation.
However, Rwandan military and defence spokesperson Lt-Col Rene Ngendahimana denied the reports.
The hill only became a point of dispute between the two countries after disagreements over President Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a third term which was met with resistance.
Cut off completely
Burundi accused Rwanda of backing armed groups seeking to oust President Nkurunziza.
In his New Year remarks, President Nkurunziza said that his country’s relations with certain countries like Rwanda and Belgium were not good in 2016, because of their involvement in his country.
He also said that relations between his country and Rwanda continue to exist albeit amid difficulties, but vowed to cut them completely if Rwanda does not apologise for its alleged actions in Burundi since 2015.
President Nkurunziza said that Bujumbura has never provoked Rwanda, but Kigali got involved in acts of destabilising his country.
Burundian authorities have been accusing Rwanda of backing armed groups fighting the government in Bujumbura, though Rwanda dismisses these charges.
“On the relations between Burundi and Rwanda, everything has a beginning and an end. Burundi never provoked Rwanda, even in history. Issues between our two countries always originate from Rwanda. There are examples,” President Nkurunziza said.
He further said that his government has arms captured in the country that originated from Rwanda.
On his country’s decision to bar exports to Rwanda in August 2016, President Nkurunzinza said: “Burundians import some goods from Rwanda and Rwandans buy some goods here, but if Rwanda does not apologise for its actions in Burundi in 2015 and 2016, we will cut ties completely and stop any relations between the two countries.”
Burundian government officials have claimed that Rwanda hosts groups of Burundian exiles who oppose President Nkurunziza’s government.
Peace talks led by former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa between the government of Burundi and opposition groups have not yielded results.
Speaking about the situation in Burundi in his end of year press conference, Rwandan President Paul Kagame emphasised his country’s decision to distance itself from the happenings in Burundi.
The two countries enjoyed cordial relations over the years but relations went sour in 2015 after a political crisis engulfed Burundi as President Nkurunziza sought another term in office.
Over 300,000 people fled the country to neighbouring countries and beyond, with over 80,000 seeking refuge in Rwanda.
Bujumbura wants all refugees to return even though the crisis is far from over.