An offer by the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR) to mediate dispute between Rwanda and Burundi has been rebuffed by authorities in Kigali.
The ICGLR overture came last week during a meeting of regional foreign affairs ministers on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, where a decision was reached to send a fact-finding mission to defuse tension between the two countries.
Angolan Foreign Affairs Minister Georges Chikoti, who chairs the ICGLR Council of Ministers, told reporters that Burundi blamed Rwanda for supporting insurgency on its territory, violating the region’s mutual security and defence agreements on non-aggression.
Tension between the two countries has been building up over the past few months. Bujumbura has accused Kigali of backing opponents of President Pierre Nkurunziza and providing refuge to the generals who attempted to overthrow his regime.
The diplomatic spat was exacerbated in early September when Burundi filed an official complaint with the ICGLR accusing Rwanda of acts of aggression against its territory.
According to the complaint, Kigali has been using ex-combatants from the DRC to destabilise its southern neighbour. Rwanda has denied this accusation and in turn accused Bujumbura of backing FDLR rebels, who have among their ranks, are people suspected of carrying out the 1994 Rwandan genocide.
A communiqué signed by the executive secretary of ICGLR, Prof Ntumba Luaba, in New York, said a mission will be sent to Rwanda to verify claims that it is using ex-combatants, presumable former M23 fighters, from the DRC to destabilise Burundi.
ICGLR “urged the government of Rwanda to facilitate the deployment of the Expanded Joint Verification Mission on its territory in order to verify the claims made by the government of Burundi,” reads the communiqué seen by The EastAfrican.
Two days after the meeting of ICGLR foreign ministers, Rwanda flatly rejected the decision, saying that that was not what ministers had greed on in their New York meeting.
According to the protest note seen by The EastAfrican, Rwanda asked Prof Luaba, to “refrain from the bad habit of taking unilateral decisions in disregard of member states.”
Rwanda said it cannot be party to a decision made without its participation, adding that the meeting, attended by all members of ICGLR except the Central African Republic — whose president flew home early over rumours of a coup attempt — only decided on circulating the draft communiqué for comments.
“During the said ministerial conference, it was agreed that a draft communique would be circulated for consideration and comment before its approval,” Rwanda said in a protest note copied to Angola, the current chair of ICGLR, and all member states of the ICGLR.
“On September 26, when member states (at least Rwanda) were awaiting a draft communique for comment, the ICGLR Secretariat circulated a ‘final communiqué.’”
Rwanda said since it was denied the opportunity to comment as agreed on in the meeting, it will not “adhere to the said communiqué.”
“We expected the draft communiqué to be sent to member states before publication but the ICGLR Secretariat instead released the communiqué urging Rwanda to receive a joint verification mission,” said Olivier Nduhungirehe, acting director general of multinational affairs in Rwanda’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
The Rwandan Foreign Affairs Ministry expressed its disappointment to the ICGLR Secretariat and requested the regional body to amend the communiqué. Rwanda said sending a verification mission is a diversion from what is really happening in Burundi.
A Rwandan political scientist, Dr Eric Ndushabandi said Bujumbura is using Rwanda as a scapegoat to avoid addressing the political tension in the country sparked in April when President Nkurunziza sought another term in office.
The region is becoming increasingly worried about a potential conflict between Rwanda and Burundi, which could spill over to neighbouring countries such as the DRC and make an already dire humanitarian crisis even worse.
The alleged presence of FDLR rebels in Burundi, working with the feared Imbonerakure government-leaning militia to crack down on anti-Nkurunziza protests, could be the conflict trigger between the two countries.
“We wrote an e-mail saying Rwanda cannot endorse that communiqué. It did not reflect Rwanda’s stand and requested the chairman of ICGLR to restrain the executive secretary from issuing it,” said Mr Nduhungirehe. But by October 1, 2015, the communiques was still on ICGLR’s website.
ICGLR brings together 12 Great Lakes nations — Angola, Burundi, Central African Republic, Republic of Congo, Democratic Republic of Congo, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Republic of South Sudan, Sudan, Tanzania and Zambia.
Dr Ndushabandi, however, said the best alternative is for the two countries to engage in bilateral talks. Burundians opposed to a third term by President Nkurunziza’s took to the streets in April resulting in deaths and exodus of citizens to neighbouring countries.
At the height of protests and threats to their lives by a group of militias — Mbonerakure who are aligned to President Nkurunziza — at least 43,000 Burundian refugees crossed into Rwanda.
The political tension between the Burundi and Rwanda spilled over affect to businessmen and ordinary civilians.
At the height of the tension, Rwanda’s Foreign Affairs Minister Cooperation, Louise Mushikiwabo tweeted that 30 Rwandans travelling to Bujumbura were “disembarked on several occasions, arrested and taken to unknown destinations.”
Rwanda has used the presence of FDLR in eastern DRC to justify sending troops to the country several times, which could also happen in Burundi, analysts said. United States special envoy for the Great Lakes Thomas Perriello recently told journalists that there is no evidence yet of FDLR presence in Burundi.
Last month, there were signs of a de-escalation of the tension when Burundi released 14 of 30 Rwandan nationals it had detained on suspicions of espionage.
Additional reporting by Esiara Kabona