Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni and the East African Community could share in the blame if full-scale war breaks out in Burundi, a senior US official said on Wednesday.
The Ugandan leader’s campaign for re-election next year has “very much distracted” him from his assigned role as EAC mediator of the Burundi crisis, Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield told a US Senate panel.
Urgent and closely focused attention is needed to quell Burundi’s internal conflict, the US diplomat said. But the EAC’s efforts to promote negotiations “have not borne fruit,” she added.
“We hope to see dialogue initiated in the very near future,” Ms Thomas-Greenfield remarked. “If it is not, and the crisis deteriorates further, possibly into full-scale war, I fear that President Museveni and the EAC could end up being partially blamed, given the lengthy delays in getting the process started.”
Political tensions within the EAC have also impeded mediation, she said.
Competing interests between Burundi and Rwanda and between Rwanda and Tanzania “have caused the EAC to not be as effective as they might have been,” Ms Thomas-Greenfield said in remarks to a US Senate subcommittee on Africa.
Senator Jeff Flake, chairman of that panel, observed in his own comments that Mr Museveni might “find it hard to speak with much credibility” on the crisis precipitated by the Burundian president’s decision to seek a third five-year term in office.
The Ugandan leader has been in power for nearly three decades and aims to remain in charge for another five years, Senator Flake noted.
The US wants the African Union to take over the mediation effort from the EAC, Assistant Secretary Thomas-Greenfield said.
“We’re hopeful the AU will become more actively engaged in the process and take this burden away from President Museveni,” she told the Senate panel.
The State Department’s top Africa official also took note of reports that Rwanda is recruiting Burundian refugees with the possible aim of launching an armed insurgency inside Burundi.
The US has encouraged the Rwandan government to investigate those reports, Ms Thomas-Greenfield said.
Washington is also urging Rwanda to become “more pro-active” in the peace process, she added.
While acknowledging “warning signs” that the conflict in Burundi could take on an ethnic character, Ms Thomas-Greenfield disputed assertions that Hutu-Tutsi violence is imminent.
Aimed at President Pierre Nkurunziza
“The ethnic part of this conflict has not taken root yet,” she said.
“There is some militarisation developing,” but divisions between Hutu and Tutsi are “not as sharp as they might become,” she commented.
“The military has particularly avoided that,” Ms Thomas-Greenfield noted.
Most of her criticisms were aimed President Pierre Nkurunziza, who, she said, is responsible for “a decade of irresponsible governance and failure to alleviate poverty in Burundi.”
But Ms Thomas-Greenfield also admonished elements of the opposition.
Their resort to violence, she said, threatens to further destabilise Burundi.
“While Nkurunziza’s cynical attempts to treat all of those opposed to his actions as coup plotters must be rejected, it is equally important for those opposition members who have taken up arms to renounce violence and fully commit themselves to reaching a political consensus for the way forward,” she declared.
A comparatively pro-government position was put forward at the same Senate subcommittee session by Sixte Vigny Nimuraba, a Burundian who works as director of a violence-prevention at a US university.
“People in the countryside do not care about president terms or the nuances of constitutional law: Mr Nimuraba told the senators. “What they remember is that there has been a popular president who does community service with them and who plays soccer with them. The capital city is the place where the political classes live.”
Mr Nimuraba also suggested that world powers may be contributing to circumstances underlying the conflict in Burundi.
“There is an underreported cold war competition between the major powers — China and Russia on one side and the West on the other,” he said.
“Unexploited mineral resources like nickel and uranium play a major role in that commercial conflict.”
The East African