Former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa’s February 9 decision to relinquish his role as the facilitator of the Inter-Burundi peace dialogue came as depressing but not completely surprising news.
A livid Mkapa had on February 1 told the EAC Heads of State Summit in Arusha that he had given up because Burundi had not demonstrated sufficient commitment to the peace process and had skipped some rounds of the negotiations.
Bujumbura had gone ahead to hold a referendum in which it removed presidential term limits and extended the presidential tenure from five, to seven years without the courtesy of consulting the facilitator. Where it appeared, it had filibustered the process by sending delegates that lacked the seniority to make binding decisions.
Mr Mkapa then passed the facilitator’s baton back to chief negotiator Yoweri Museveni. The latter’s efforts to pass it to new EAC Summit Chair Paul Kagame fell flat after the Rwandan president declined the role. The process is now more complicated than when it first started because it has since gained an external dimension.
On the one hand, Bujumbura accuses Rwanda of fanning unrest in Burundi even as it fires salvos at the EAC for interfering in its internal affairs.
Bujumbura’s rejection of Mr Mkapa revolves around his efforts to ensure that Burundi’s new Constitution, passed in a referendum in 2018, was in the spirit of the 2000 Arusha Accord that ushered in the fragile peace that held the country together at least until May 2015.
President Pierre Nkurunziza and his ruling coalition do not see the need to accommodate the other parties concerns’ over the changes to the Constitution because, according to them, this was the decision of the Burundian people.
Mr Mkapa’s departure is ominous and should not be taken lightly. In the absence of a process that gives hope of an amicable resolution of Burundi’s intractable problems, radical forces are likely to dig in further. Like the region, Bujumbura should be interested in dialogue as a way of resolving the political crisis because there is no viable alternative.
Also, its quarrel with Rwanda needs to be decoupled so that the internal problem is looked at for what it is. That consequently could reduce or even eliminate some of the suspicions about Rwanda.
So far, the dialogue has been lopsided, with Bujumbura expressing disagreement with what others propose but not matching them with-counter proposals. Bujumbura needs to indicate the areas of agreement while keeping the door open for further pursuit of a settlement on outstanding issues.
Without that, the special summit Bujumbura has asked for to discuss its differences with Kigali, is unlikely to be productive. Hardliners also need to be removed from the equation.
There is no doubt that East Africa is keen to resolve the Burundi crisis. This is because the crisis there has exacted a heavy human toll and added to the refugee headache for its neighbours. Instability also costs the region dearly in terms of investor confidence.
Burundi and East Africa’s opportunity in this crisis lies in dialogue; it should be seized because it is all there is.