The peace talks on the Burundi crisis will resume today (Tuesday) in the Tanzanian city of Arusha after some stalling. The negotiations, under the auspices of the East African Community, are facilitated by Tanzania’s former president Benjamin Mkapa, who, it seems, is in a pickle, for a number of reasons.
Mkapa has to deal with the question of exclusion. During the first round of talks on May 21 this year, he was accused of excluding Burundi’s coalition of opposition political parties that goes by the acronym CNARED as well as that country’s major civil society movement known as Halte au 3e mandat.
In those talks, Mkapa was accused of entering negotiations with only one side: the government and non-political actors that are allied to it.
Mkapa was also accused of excluding the women’s movement, except for two women who claimed to represent civil society. This was followed by complaints from the Movement Halte au 3e Mandat that disowned them saying that they were not speaking on its behalf; similarly, CNARED urged all its members against attending the talks as individuals, pointing to the importance of representation as a group.
The leaders of the civil society platform, with strong links in Burundian society, Pacifique Nininahazwe, Pierre Claver Mbonimpa and Vital Nshimirimana were instrumental in mobilizing people to take to the streets to protest against Nkurunziza’s third term, which earned them a place on the list of those to be eliminated and international arrest warrants issued.
In other words, these are persons of influence in Burundian society. However, they were not invited during the first round of talks and they will not take part tomorrow, in the second round. As such, what the talks suffer from – exclusion – will continue and the results are likely to be the same.
Every entity with influence in Burundian society – civil society, political opposition, the independent media, the Catholic Church, etc. – has grievance against Mkapa for completely ignoring them; they feel they are not being listened to.
To be fair, when these grievances arose after the first round, Mkapa tried to address them by meeting the opposition political parties’ coalition in Brussels, Belgium. He also met with some other key political actors such as former president Pierre Buyoya.
Mkapa was also scheduled to meet with civil society organization leaders in exile. However, this meeting never took place for reasons that remain unclear. Crucially, he was unable to meet the people who led the initial protest against Nkurunziza’s third term against which the masses were mobilised to go to the streets.
The consequence of all this is that Mkapa’s credibility – as a neutral mediator/arbiter – has taken a hit. As a result, his ability to help deliver a way out of the current crisis in Burundi has suffered. He comes off as being impotent and much worse will be said about him if he doesn’t change strategy.
The good news is that Mkapa somehow continues to benefit from goodwill even from those who feel like he has ignored them. They believe he is not doing it out of bad-faith; they think he just needs help in identifying the key parties to the conflict and that he will eventually bring all to the table without fear or favour: the government, political opposition, civil society groups, religious organizations, and private sector actors.
But that goodwill will not last forever. Mkapa needs to recognise that this isn’t going to be a walk in the park; that these are difficult negotiations. Further, he must understand that he will have to take some risks, even if this means making the regime in Bujumbura unhappy.
For instance, I’d urge him to invite people like General Godefroid Niyombare and others who are accused of having taken place in the attempted coup last year.
But this is not unprecedented. The negotiations for the South Sudan crisis would not have been conclusive had the suspected coup plotters not been invited, let alone the reality of how the implementation of that accord is going.
Of course this risks a boycott from Bujumbura and has the potential to prolong the crisis. However, neither will pampering Bujumbura deliver a resolution to the crisis. Consequently, Mkapa will need to start acting decisively as someone with some authority, as his mandate warrants.
Otherwise, he risks being seen as weak and unfit for the task at hand. He will appear as if he is protecting Nkurunzia, and therefore as part of the problem. With the credibility and goodwill of the people of Burundi lost, the crisis will continue unabated, and Nkurunziza will add Mkapa to his list of victims.
Unfortunately, this means that the refugees who have left Burundi will stay where they are for some foreseeable future. More still will join them as things deteriorate in Bujumbura as the regime gets bolder in the comfort that the world has given up on the Burundian people and that it has, in effect, sided with it.
The writer is a Burundi peace activist.