Hutu rebels given grace

After two months of inconclusive talks in Dar es Salaam about a ceasefire in Burundi’s long-running civil war, Southern African heads of state attending a summit in Tanzania this week had prepared to take punitive measures against Hutu rebel groups they blame for the lack of progress at the negotiations.

Those present at the summit included Burundian President Pierre Buyoya, President Thabo Mbeki, Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa, Democratic Republic of Congo President Joseph Kabila, Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, former president Nelson Mandela and Deputy President Jacob Zuma, who has been responsible for mediating the ceasefire process.

In a surprise development, however, the heads of state gave Hutu rebel movements another 30 days to enter into ceasefire negotiations before taking action.

This softened stance was partly because of ceasefires agreed between the Burundian government and minority factions of the two principal rebel movements, the FDD and FNL.

However, the main factor was an apparent change in position from the leader of the majority faction of the FDD, Pierre Nkurunziza. Nkurunziza, whose fighters pose a major threat to the Burundian armed forces, has twice previously walked out of the Dar es Salaam talks, but now says he agrees to unconditional negotiations with the Burundian government.

There is some scepticism about whether Nkurunziza’s offer is genuine, but also guarded optimism that he might keep his word this time. Possibly prompting Nkurunziza’s change of heart, according to a well-placed source, is that Mkapa has recently reined in members of the Tanzanian government alleged to support Nkurunziza, including the Foreign Minister, Jikaya Kikwete. In addition, Kabila is under increasing pressure to disassociate his government from Hutu militia such as Nkurunziza’s.

The Burundian government is sounding upbeat, with Buyoya confident that talks with the FDD can now begin in earnest. Analysts warn, however, that even if talks do begin, such is the gulf between the two sides that there could easily be deadlock.

There is also still no prospect of an agreement with the FNL, which is sticking to its hardline position that it will negotiate, not with the government, but with the Burundian armed forces.

If Nkurunziza’s latest offer proves worthless, the heads of state will finally be forced to act.

The heads of state have, however, always been vague about what they might do against Burundi’s Hutu militia and it is not clear what impact sanctions could have, particularly on the FNL, which has no obvious external backers. There is also considerable scepticism that either the Tanzanian or Congo governments have the commitment necessary to make sanctions effective.

Observers are hoping, however, that it will not come to this and that talks between the Burundi government and the FDD will create a small window of opportunity to end the bloodshed.

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