Detentions threaten Burundi peace

The independent Burundian human rights organisation Iteka reported earlier this week that 20 people suspected of belonging to the rebel group Parti pour la libération du peuple Hutu-Forces nationales pour la libération (Palipehutu-FNL) had been arrested and are being detained by security police. One woman detainee was said to have been tortured and to be in a critical condition, and detainees are receiving no food from their captors.

Sadly, until recently such an event would barely have merited mention in this war-traumatised country, where far worse atrocities have been a daily occurrence for years. Yet, on September 7, in the Tanzanian capital of Dar es Salaam, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza and Palipehutu-FNL leader Agathon Rwasa signed a historic ceasefire agreement to end the militia’s 26-year war with the Burundian state; the agreement specifically ruled out arrests on the basis of political affiliation.

The ceasefire agreement was widely hailed as a major step towards peace but there are serious doubts about its ability to bring an end to the war.
The most striking aspect of the deal is that Palipehutu-FNL conceded a ceasefire despite securing none of the concessions it has demanded for so long, such as a restructuring of the army and guaranteed participation in the government. Overall, the interpretation of the peace agreement is that the militia has received extremely slim returns after all its years of fighting. In a recent statement, the Palipehutu-FNL leadership effectively conceded as much, saying that their signing was the “result of intense self-sacrifice” made in the interests of the suffering Burundian masses.

However, the Burundian masses have been suffering for many years as a result of the war, so the question remains, “Why now?” A possible answer, however inconsistent with Rwasa’s previous firm stance against reaching an agreement without getting key concessions, is that Palipehutu-FNL is suing for peace now because it has realised that it cannot win power militarily and also cannot hope to garner regional support after democratic elections last year delivered a mandate to a coalition of political groups.

Although it has signed, Palipehutu-FNL continues to accuse the government of lacking genuine commitment to peace, and of doing everything it can to justify renewed hostilities, claims that were bolstered by the recent arrests of the Palipehutu-FNL troops.

Only two days before the signing the South African facilitation team was privately suggesting cancelling the ceremony because Rwasa had been saying that he would not agree to the deal. One intriguing theory about why he ultimately did so is that Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who chairs the regional heads of state initiative on Burundi, and Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete convinced him to sign so that Nkurunziza would be deprived of his stock excuse that the Palipehutu-FNL threat justified the authoritarian shift in Burundi over the past six months.

Since April key opposition politicians, including former president Domitien Ndayizeye, have been arrested and detained on suspicion of plotting a coup although no evidence has been presented. Journalists and civil society activists have also been detained and several independent radio stations closed down. So far, only the former colonial power Belgium has spoken out against the crackdown, with its government recently urging the European Union to take a firm line on the rapid deterioration in the political climate in Burundi. Having invested so much in the political process that culminated in Nkurunziza’s victory last year the South African government has been reluctant to raise its voice.

Museveni and Kikwete may be preparing themselves to intervene, but they first need Palipehutu-FNL to stop fighting—if only temporarily. Unfortunately, if the arrests of Palipehutu-FNL combatants continue they may well return to the bush and resume fighting, significantly eroding Rwasa’s hold over them.

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