What next for Rwanda and Burundi relations?

Monday January 2 2017

Protesters march in Burundian capital Bujumbura on July 30, 2016 to demonstrate against a United Nations Security Council decision to send a police contingent to the country. PHOTO | AFP

Protesters march in Burundian capital Bujumbura on July 30, 2016 to demonstrate against a United Nations Security Council decision to send a police contingent to the country. PHOTO | AFP 

By The EastAfrican Team

The year 2016 is ending with relations between Rwanda and Burundi at an all-time low. Kigali says it wants to stay away from the crisis in Burundi but Bujumbura maintains its accusations of meddling against its neighbour.

There is little prospect of détente, with Bujumbura insisting that peace talks can only proceed if all countries hosting opposition members fighting the government, including Rwanda, ask them to leave.

Talks between President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government and the opposition to resolve the political crisis that began in April 2015 have collapsed several times and are set to resume soon, but opposition groups want the facilitator Benjamin Mkapa to step down.

Early December, Mr Mkapa made remarks that seemed to legitimise President Nkurunziza as the elected leader of the country, angering exiled opposition groups, which called for his resignation and asked the United Nations to take over.

Rwanda, on the other hand, while not indifferent to the situation in Burundi, has been careful to maintain a healthy distance, with President Paul Kagame stating that the issues in Burundi are not his “primary concern.”

President Kagame, weighing in on the ongoing process, dismissed the demand by Burundian authorities to kick out the exiled opposition leaders and faulted Mr Mkapa for not briefing the EAC Heads of State Summit on the matter.

“If this had come up as a way of briefing the leaders as to what progress has been made or lack of it, it would have certainly been better,” President Kagame said at his end of year press conference.

Refugees

On repatriating refugees, which Burundi says include people opposing the government, President Kagame said it would mean also asking the between 80,000 and 90,000 refugees who fled the country to return home.

“We would be very happy to return these people… , if only at the same time we are not going to be accused of other things. So more clarity has be to shed on this so that we know what we can do together as a region in facilitating the solution to the problems in Burundi,” the Rwanda leader said.

He added: “What we stand ready for as Rwanda is to contribute to Burundi’s resolution of the problems there; like any other neighbour where we are expected to make positive contribution.”

Rwanda has taken a back seat in as far as the situation in Burundi is concerned, after Bujumbura levelled accusations of Kigali backing rebels plotting against President Nkurunziza’s government.

Burundian officials continued to express animosity towards Kigali throughout 2016, characterised by protests in front of the Rwandan mission in Bujumbura and a subsequent decision by Burundi to ban exports to Rwanda, mainly food stuffs.

Throughout the year, Rwanda decided to keep a safe distance from the situation in Burundi, despite allegations targeting Kigali. In November, Burundian officials accused Kigali of being behind the attempted assassination of President Nkurunziza’s top aide and spokesperson Willy Nyamitwe.

Days before the attempted assassination, Mr Nyamitwe had appeared on Al Jazeera TV and claimed that the elements behind a report indicating that the country was on the verge of genocide were operating in Rwanda.

Throughout this, Kigali avoided exchanges with Burundian officials, with Foreign Affairs Minister Louise Mushikiwabo stating that Rwanda is not concerned by Burundi’s problems, but would ensure safety on its side of the border.

Avoiding backlash

Rwanda seems to be avoiding a backlash from the international community by keeping out of the Burundian crisis, having at some point found itself in the spotlight over its alleged support for opposition elements. Kigali vehemently denied backing the rebels.

President Kagame said talks between the government and the many groups are the only way forward. 

“I have no remedy for other people’s problems….even if I had a solution in mind, I want to treat as first and foremost, as not my personal responsibility,” he said, adding, however, that if the issue moves to another level where he can contribute like the Heads of State Summit, he will do so.

A report released on November 15 by the International Federation for Human Rights warned that Burundi was on the verge of the genocide, urging the international community to intervene. Burundi rejected the findings of the report.

“The report, published with the contribution of the Burundi-based Iteka Human Rights League is biased and full of lies,” Mr Nyamitwe said, describing it as “fiction.”

Mr Nyamitwe accused the publishers of the report of “protecting Rwanda,” by failing to mention Kigali’s role. He also pointed out that the head of League Iteka is based in Rwanda.

Florent Geel, the Africa director of FIDH dismissed the rebuttal by the Burundian government, saying that the findings were based on true stories and research done by the organisation and its partners inside the country.

Earlier in the year, Ms Mushikiwabo said that while the political situation in Burundi is relatively calm, a lot needs to be done to restore relations between the embattled country and its neighbours.

“What we have done as a country, to contribute to Burundi’s recovery is to try and stay away from controversies,” said Ms Mushikiwabo.

Rwanda was drawn into the conflict after Burundian officials accused Kigali of recruiting rebels from the thousands of Burundian refugees in Rwanda to fight the government. Rwanda denied the accusations but diplomatic ties between the two neighbours were strained. Observers say the matter is far from over.