Tensions between Rwanda and Burundi over the conflict in the latter country boiled over when representatives of the two traded accusations at an international forum in New York.
Burundi’s Foreign Affairs Minister Alain Nyamitwe sparked the confrontation when he told a UN Security Council forum that that “Burundi faces an existential threat from Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame,” referring to allegations that Rwanda is training Burundian rebels.
His remark angered his Rwandan counterpart Eugene-Richard Gasana, who said the “unverified allegations” by Burundi and “its allies” accusing Rwanda of training Burundian rebels are nothing but rumours.
“The rumours seek to externalise responsibility for the current [Burundi] conflict and are another failed attempt to shift focus away from the real causes of the instability,” he said.
“The response from the international community has been more of rhetorical exchanges than actions aimed at preventing the escalation and the commission of mass atrocities.”
During the debate on the Great Lakes Region, a visibly angry Mr Gasana told Mr Nyamitwe not to drag President Kagame into the Burundian crisis.
“Let me just add that hatred rhetoric against my country and my president are unacceptable. He is our hero; don’t ever dare treat him that way,” he told Mr Nyamitwe.
He said progress in finding a solution to the Burundi crisis had been “limited, if not disappointing” due to diversionary counter-accusations.
Early this month, security forces in Burundi paraded before journalists a man they accused of being a Rwandan spy.
President Pierre Nkurunziza warned that Rwanda intended to undermine the sovereignty of Burundi, and told the UN that he had “enough evidence” implicating Rwanda in meddling in the politics of Burundi.
“We did not forget also to express our concerns with the neighbouring Rwanda, we have all the proofs and have already presented the evidence to the international community as was requested so that even external dialogue should be considered to restore peace and stability in our country,” said President Nkurunziza.
To distance itself farther from the Burundian crisis, Rwanda early last month announced plans to relocate over 75,000 Burundian refugees it hosts – a plan that was criticised by UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.
Although Rwanda seemed to have backtracked on this plan thereafter, according to Mr Gasana, the plan is still on.
“On our side, to avoid any misunderstanding of our intention, we have requested the international community to work with us in planning the orderly and safe relocation of Burundi refugees to third countries,” he said.
“While my government is committed to meeting its obligations under international humanitarian law, it should not, however, be negatively exploited by those who are expected to find a solution to this crisis.”
The facilitator of the Burundi peace process, former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa, defused tensions between Rwanda and Burundi, shortly after meeting with President Nkurunziza last week.
He referred to the tension between the two countries as “silly speculation,” noting that the region should advance peace, development and co-operation.
“I shall seek President Nkurunziza’s undertaking and those of his fellow heads of state and hope to end any speculation of possibilities of violence, confrontation or even war between members of the EAC on developments in Burundi,” said Mr Mkapa.
However, it is not yet known when the dialogue mediated by Mr Mkapa on the crisis will be restarted.
The United States meanwhile has put more pressure on Burundi to take “decisive action” in finding a peaceful solution to the crisis.
“Some of his [President Nkurunziza] government’s recent commitments are encouraging, but none have yet been matched by meaningful action,” Samantha Power, US permanent representative to the United Nations, said.
“Of the 2,000 prisoners he pledged to free, just 158 have been released to date — and only 47 of those were political prisoners. Two of the five radio stations shuttered have been allowed to reopen — but that’s just two of the five — and one of those allowed to reopen is pro-government. We will welcome and support constructive steps when we see them, but rhetoric is not enough,” she added.
Burundi descended into chaos in July last year after President Nkurunziza was controversially re-elected for a third term.
More than 400 people have been killed since then and more than 250,000 have fled to neighbouring countries, most of them to Rwanda.