/ 24 November 2003

Peace still has such a long way to go

‘This tiny African country would strike a blow for multilateralism and dialogue if it could prove that talks can lead to peaceful coexistence,” was how Nelson Mandela summed up his hopes for peace in Burundi at the swearing in of Hutu President Domitien Ndayizeye last May.

After several months of talks in Pretoria and Dar es Salaam at least part of what Mandela hoped for has happened: Burundi’s government and its biggest rebel faction signed a comprehensive peace deal, paving the way for an end to the country’s 10-year-long civil conflict. The Forces pour la Défense de Democratie (FDD) has now lain down its arms and is duly preparing take up its newly created posts in Burundi’s government, its army and its police force.

But as is always the peacemaker’s dilemma, there are still people on both sides — Tutsis as well as Hutus — who’d rather not make the compromises necessary for peace. No one was surprised when the Forces Nationale de Liberation (FNL) — Burundi’s oldest but weakest Hutu faction — on Monday rejected the government’s three-month deadline to get involved in peace talks.

The FNL has always said it regards Ndayizeye as a stooge of Burundi’s powerful Tutsi-dominated military elite. As if to underline this view, FNL spokesperson Pasteur Habimana said on Monday that the FNL would only negotiate directly with the Tutsis, implying that Ndayizeye himself is a mere puppet and therefore not even worth talking to.

More surprising than the FNL’s obstinacy is that the FDD eventually came to accept Burundi’s moderate Hutu president. Having publicly declared in May that it regards his presidency as “meaningless and purely ceremonial”, it seems it eventually got the package it wanted in order to work with Ndayizeye. That should at least offer a ray of hope to those wondering whether Burundi’s more hard line Hutu rebel group, the FNL, can be brought round.

But peace still has such a long way to go. Only last week, in the run-up to the two-day summit in Dar es Salaam, 17 people were killed in clashes between government forces and the FNL. Last October United Nations officials warned that Burundi’s 350 000 refugees living in neighbouring Tanzania were in severe danger if they tried to return home.

The scariest thing about Burundi is that it is in many ways a more desperate version of its northern neighbour, Rwanda. Both countries’ problems stem from the Belgian colonists, who used the Tutsis as feudal overlords to tyrannise the Hutu majority, turning a more-or-less balanced traditional caste system into an altogether more brutal hierarchy. And both countries, shortly after the Belgians departed leaving power in the hands of the Tutsis, experienced Hutu rebellions.

The only difference is that in Rwanda the Hutu majority were successful. At independence in 1961 they took charge and in 1973 they got more extreme, forcing hundreds of thousands of Tutsis to flee north into neighbouring Uganda. From there some of the Tutsis formed the rebel group that was to succeed in killing Hutu extremist president Juvenal Habyarimana in 1994, triggering the wave of Hutu genocide against Tutsis that was to shock the world.

But in Burundi, attempts by Hutus, inspired by their Rwandan brothers, to seize a share in state power have been brutally suppressed from the outset.

In 1972, when Hutus attempted to stage a coup against the Tutsi military regime, killing thousands of Tutsis, they were crushed. In response the regime killed hundreds of thousands of Hutus.

As is so often the case, in the midst of all this violence there have been moderates keen to stop the madness and bring the two sides together. One of them was Tutsi army officer Pierre Buyoya, who seized power in a coup in 1987, intending to bring democracy to Burundi. Thanks to Buyoya, Burundi got its first elected president, Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, in 1992.

But the bitterness and mistrust was too great. The Hutu rebel factions refused to disarm and the Tutsi elite maintained their stranglehold in the army. In 1993 they killed Ndadaye and Buyoya was forced to take the reigns again. Every Hutu leader that has been put in place by Buyoya since has been despised as a Tutsi poodle.

And yet the power-sharing deal brokered by Buyoya might well have what it takes to heal the rift. Caught between the mistrust of the Tutsi army too frightened to relinquish power and Hutu rebels demanding that they do, he miraculously managed to persuade the Tutsi elite to give up 40% of army officer posts to the FDD. The Hutu group also gets 15 MPs and a second Assembly vice-president.

That isn’t enough to please the FNL, but as far as Burundi’s civilians are concerned the danger of a an angry popular Hutu-perpetrated genocide might not be as great as some fear. Most Burundians interviewed by journalists these days seem to just want Burundi’s conflict to end. So that they can get on with their lives.