Peace on the horizon

Published : Dec 08, 2001 00:00 IST

A peace process mediated by Nelson Mandela raises hopes in strife-torn Burundi.

WHILE the world's attention was focussed on the United States-led war against Afghanistan, a development that has the potential to advance the cause of peace in central Africa took place in the first week of November. South African peace-keepers reached Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, to supervise an agreement to end one of the bloodiest civil wars in recent times on the African continent. The man behind the dramatic development was the charismatic Nelson Mandela. Only a person of his stature could have persuaded the warring parties to bring the eight-year-old civil war to an end.

There has been fighting even after the peace-keepers landed as some of the Tutsi and Hutu guerilla groupings have rejected the power-sharing arrangement envisaged in the agreement, which was signed at Arusha in Tanzania in July. The major Hutu rebel groups, the Forces for National Liberation and the Forces for the Defence of Democracy, have refused to sign the accord.

The conflict in Burundi mirrors to a great extent the conflict in neighbouring Rwanda. In Burundi too, the minority Tutsis have been reluctant to loosen their stranglehold on power. And a section of the majority Hutus, like their counterparts in Rwanda, seems hell-bent on ethnic cleansing. More than 200,000 people are estimated to have died in the civil war. About 800,000 people - 12 per cent of the country's population - have become internal refugees as a result of the Tutsi-dominated government's policy of forcibly relocating civilians.

The civil war in Burundi has aggravated the situation in central Africa, a region that has been witnessing war on an unprecedented scale. The Hutu and Tutsi militias are also embroiled in a civil war in the neighbouring Republic of Congo. Another neighbour, Tanzania, has half a million Hutu refugees.

The Tutsi-dominated government in Rwanda is warily looking at the unfolding events in Burundi. Rwanda's Tutsi elite is seemingly loath to share power with the Hutus. They fear that if the experiment succeeds in Burundi, there will be demands to replicate it in Rwanda, given the similarities in the politics of the neighbours.

The long-standing strife in Burundi erupted into civil war when the first democratically elected Hutu President and six Ministers were killed during a coup attempt by the Tutsi-dominated Army in 1993. The fighting between the Army and Hutu rebels resulted in massive internal displacement of people and the destabilisation of the region. Attempts by the United Nations and other international agencies in the mid-1990s to find a solution failed.

It was only when Mandela entered the picture in 1999 that things got moving. In December 1999, a meeting of African heads of state in Arusha designated him the "Facilitator of the Burundi Peace Process". Mandela, despite his advanced age, got to work. In January 2000, he met the representatives of the warring groups in Arusha and subsequently addressed the U.N. Security Council on his efforts in Burundi. His diplomatic initiatives led to a breakthrough within months. A peace and reconciliation agreement was signed on August 28, 2000 in Arusha by most of the parties involved in the peace process. To kickstart the peace process on the ground, the South African government, prodded by Mandela, took the courageous step of sending in its troops as a "protective force" to Burundi at a time when few countries were willing to do so. Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal have committed themselves to deploying their forces for peace-keeping in Burundi.

The power-sharing experiment started in the first week of November under President Pierre Buyoya, who will head an interim government for 18 months. (Buyoya, a former Tutsi Army officer, seized power in a coup in 1996.) Then he will be replaced by a senior Hutu leader - most probably Vice-President Domitien Ndayizeye.

The agreement between the government of Burundi and seven Opposition parties called for the deployment of an impartial multinational force in Burundi, besides setting the framework for the transitional government and the composition of the Cabinet, the Senate and a transitional national assembly.

The U.N. and other international agencies hope that the multinational troop presence will provide security for the large number of refugees who are expected to return once the chances of lasting peace brighten. The force will also train an all-Burundian "protection force", which will be a fully integrated army. The need to reorganise the Burundian Army has acquired urgency as there have been two coup attempts in the last six months. The last attempt was made on July 23 when Buyoya and Ndayizeye signed a document containing Mandela's proposals for a comprehensive peace settlement.

The South African troops will have a tough time in Burundi, especially in the countryside where Hutu rebels have a strong presence. The rebels belonging to the two Hutu guerilla groups have not yet agreed to lay down arms. The Hutus fear that the Tutsis will renege on their commitment to share power as they have done in the recent past. Buyoya is not trusted by both the Hutus and the Tutsis. The Hutus consider him the brain behind the 1993 coup and the Tutsis look at him as someone who is too eager to compromise to save his own position.

The Rwandan government will also seek to have a say in the running of a future government in Burundi. Rwanda, which has emerged as an important player in the region in the past two years, will try its best to keep it subservient. Rwanda is at loggerheads with the Republic of Congo and Uganda. Rwandan strongman Paul Kagame and Ugandan supremo Yoweri Museveni were once close friends. They fell out after the two countries embarked on an ill-advised plan to carve out the Congo. Both back different factions in the Congo. Their troops clashed in 1999 in the town of Kisangani in the Congo. Museveni has declared Rwanda a "hostile nation". With a view to preventing the emergence of another enemy in the region, Kagame might extend tacit support to Tutsi elements who want to sabotage the peace process in Burundi.

Mandela has said that he will not be around to supervise the transition in Burundi, and the U.N. is looking for someone who can fill the void. South African President Thabo Mbeki seems all set to play a more activist role in the region despite the bitter experience South African forces had in trying to restore peace in Lesotho in 1998. South African troops are on peace-keeping missions in the Congo, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

The South African government has published a policy document called the Millennium Africa Renewal Plan. It calls upon African nations to get together to solve the continent's problems. If the peace process in Burundi succeeds, it could be a precursor for more such initiatives in the region. At the same time, there is the possibility of other countries suspecting Pretoria's game plan. Zimbabwe and Angola, for instance, are wary about South African intentions of playing "big brother".

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