African Nations to Increase Involvement in Burundi

NAIROBI – Motivated by the success in resolving Somalia’s conflict, African leaders have stepped up efforts to end the civil war in the tiny central African nation of Burundi, where more than 300,000 people have been killed since 1993.

The leaders of Kenya, Uganda, Ethiopia, Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea and Djibouti, working under the auspices of the regional bloc, the Inter-governmental Authority on Development (IGAD), have brokered the talks to end Somalia’s 13-year civil war. The talks, which opened in neighboring Kenya in 2002, culminated in the election of Abdullahi Yusuf Ahmed as president of Somalia on Oct. 10.

Yusuf is expected to form a government of national unity within a month. Somalia slid into chaos after the fall of the dictator Mohamed Siad Barre in 1991. Since then, the Horn of Africa country has been without a central government.

Following the experience of Somalia, African leaders don’t want Burundi to also slide into chaos. Attending the 23rd Summit of the Great Lakes Regional Peace Initiative on Burundi in Kenya’s capital Nairobi Oct. 15, the leaders of Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Tanzania and South Africa pushed Burundi’s elections forward to give more time to the country’s independent electoral commission, appointed at the end of August 2004, to prepare and put in place modalities of running free and fair elections.

Initially, the elections had been scheduled for the end of October 2004, when a three-year mandate of the country’s transitional government expires. Burundi’s government, led by President Domitien Ndayizeye, was installed in office in October 2001.

The electoral commission, chaired by Paul Ngarambe, advised the summit of the impossibility of holding the elections on schedule because of logistical difficulties.

"Based on the reality on the ground, the summit accepts that elections cannot take place before Nov. 1, 2004," the African leaders, meeting in Nairobi, said in a joint statement made available to journalists. "Furthermore, the summit noted that the life of the transition institutions and administration has to be extended."

Upon arrival in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura, president Ndayizeye announced that the elections would take place in April 2005.

Some concerns have been raised about the postponement of the elections, which, critics fear, might create more tensions between Hutus, who make up 85 percent of the country’s population, and Tutsis, who dominate the army. Clashes between the two ethnic groups have erupted intermittently since independence from Belgium in 1962.

But some political analysts have ruled out any tensions resulting from the postponement of the elections since the decision was not made by the Burundi government, but by a greater force comprising African leaders.

"The postponement [of the elections] has been made by a greater unit and the rebels would not want to fight the entire [regional] bloc, which enjoys the support of the international community. There’s no need for the rebels to point a finger at the government," Mitch Odero, of the Nairobi-based Solid Strategy Africa, a regional peace and advocacy group, told IPS.

The latest clashes between the Hutus and Tutus erupted in 1993 when renegade Tutsi soldiers assassinated Melchior Ndadaye, the first elected Hutu president.

Since then, the conflict has claimed more than 300,000 lives, the latest being the August 2004 incident in which the National Liberation Forces (FNL), a Hutu rebel movement, descended on a refugee camp in Burundi, slaughtering 160 Congolese Tutsis.

Hopes were raised in August when 20 parties, among them Tutsi and Hutu rebel groups except FNL, signed an accord, resulting in a power sharing agreement.

The deal, clinched in Tanzania, gives the Tutsi minority 40 percent of government and national assembly posts, compared to 60 percent for Hutus.

The activities of FNL, the only Hutu rebel group still mounting attacks in Burundi, have placed it in bad books with regional leaders. During the 22nd Summit of the Great Lakes Regional Peace initiative on Burundi, held Aug. 18 in Tanzania’s commercial capital Dar es Salaam, heads of state of Burundi, Tanzania, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Zambia and South Africa labeled the FNL a terrorist organization.

They appealed to the United Nations Security Council to consider a travel ban on members of FNL, freeze the group’s assets and institute an arms embargo.

Critics fear that if the FNL was allowed to continue wreaking havoc, it might spark genocide, like in neighboring Rwanda, where more than 800,000 Tutsis and politically moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu extremists a decade ago.