by Mary Kimani
It was expected that nine Great Lakes region presidents would attend the meeting in Arusha, Tanzania to carve a way forward for a fragile Burundi peace process thrown apart by the death of facilitator, former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere. At the end of it only five Presidents and two prime ministers came.
When it was over the presidents of Burundi, Kenya, South Africa, Tanzanian and Uganda and the Prime Ministers of Ethiopia and Rwanda had appointed President Nelson Mandela the new facilitator of the Burundi peace talks.
His appointment was greeted with positive response from most of the parties involved in the peace process. Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, the democratically elected president deposed by Pierre Buyoya speaking to Africanews in Arusha said it was a wise choice.
"In Burundi we are afraid of the truth we need some men to help us accept the truth, " he said. "Everybody said we must have a strong man in African and international affairs, Mandela is very highly respected in his country, in Africa and in international circles. He has negotiated in his country a situation very much like the one in Burundi."
Also pleased with the appointment was the present president of Burundi Major Pierre Buyoya. The government is said to have held numerous consultations with leaders in the region in the weeks prior to the appointment in a bid to ensure that Mandela was selected.
The appointment of a new facilitator for the peace talks was considered crucial for the resumption of talks. In the void created by the delay in appointing a new mediator, Burundi has been wracked by increasing violence and extremism.
The convenor of the summit, President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, and chairman of all previous summits on Burundi noted: "In January this year when the Seventh summit on Burundi was held there was an optimism that we would have a peace deal by the end of the year. There was a gesture given in the lifting of the Burundi sanctions, because of the progress which had up to then been made by the parties."
"By the end of this year it appears this will not be the case. The facilitator's death has contributed to the slow progress of the talks. We considered that we needed to urgently address the issue of getting a new facilitator," Museveni said.
However, the appointment of a new facilitator is only one step in a difficult and tedious process. Moreover, regional leaders seem to be more than tired of the unending rounds of talks that bring no results.
Museveni,speaking to the press and delegates after deliberationsthe Ugandan president lamented the slow progress of the talks. "This region has spent too much resources and time unnecessarily on the peace talks.
The Burundi conflict has had a disproportionate claim on the efforts of leaders of this region. We have had seven summits in a span of three years.How many more summits can we have on Burundi when there are other issues?" He asked Kenya's president Daniel Toroitich Arap Moihad been more scathing during the East AfricaTreaty Signing Ceremony the day before. " Why do we need another Summit for Burundi? These people are strange, they speak the same language, they marry one another, then they fight one another, how can we arbitrate between them? Burundians just have to stop fighting and talk to each other," he said.
According to Ntibantuganya, the problem is not even in the talks any more. " We have finished with discussion. Now is the time to conclude, we needstrong man like Mandela to tell us-you must conclude," he said. But that is easier said than done. To begin with there are those who feel that the regional summit was not justified. Some Burundian parties remain wary of Museveni's motives especially due to the country's involvement in the DRC conflict.
"It is another attempt by Uganda and Tanzania to place themselves at the forefront of a warring region and to place Burundi under tutelage," Alphonse Rugambara, leader of the Inkinzo party said Small parties such as Inkinzo and factions outside the country had shown a preference for idea of an organisation rather than a person to mediate the talks. "We are thinking about International Alert, The Cape Centre for Conflict Resolution or the Italian Catholic Sant'Egidio community," Rugambarara had told news agencies.
It is interesting to note that these sentiments are very similar to the stand taken by the current regime in the DRC towards its own peace process. Of particular interest is the fact that the two have called for the intervention of the Italian Catholic Sant'Egidio community. This attempt to involve the catholic church, which has been criticised for by some for its controversial stand in great lakes issues is not surprising. Another thorny issue is the ongoing violence in Burundi. Speaking on this the leaders at the summit in a joint communique asked all parties to stop attacking civilians. Although rebel action was high on the list of violence, allegations of government forces attacking civilians met with strong denunciations.
"Groups in the armed struggle that is going on in Burundi say they want to be called liberation movements, if they want to be called liberation movements why do they target civilians women, children and non combatants?"Museveni asked.
"We have also heard that the Burundi
army is targeting civilians. We have fought many wars, I have fought many
wars and I know that you can target combatants and remove non combatants.
When you go to a peasants house and burn it , when an army kills civilians
we call that a war crime," he said. The Burundi government's method
of dealing with rebel attacks on
civilians also came under fire. Following increasing attacks on the population since June the government has re-introduced regroupment camps. The sites for the camps have been the scene of humanitarian crisis strongly condemned by the summit and the government asked to disband them.
In a press conference given at Arusha after the summit President Buyoya defended his government's actions. "If people are killed by the rebels it is my government's responsibility, if they are killed in confrontation between rebels and government troops we are responsible, it can come to mass killings, this is not theoretical, this is a reality in our region," he said.
"This is not negotiable with anybody, because we do not share this responsibility with anyone in the region."
Critics say that the regroupment camps are not so much to protect the citizens as to stop the Hutu population from aiding the rebel groups. "When the army goes to the countryside and kills civilians you know what is the reaction of young boys and girls- they go and join the rebel army," Ntubantuganya told Africa News.
"If the rebels are receiving support from the population it means that the population does not agree with your power," he added. "I would tell Buyoya not to regroup the population but negotiate for a political organisation that will be accepted by the population."
However, he noted that the problem was not new and that as president he had dealt with it on occasion. According to Ntibantuganya pressure for the set up of the camps often came from the military who found it an easier way to keep peace.
"I am personally opposed to the regroupment , when I was president the army was always asking me for the regroupment, I refused because we were not able to assure the material welfare of these people," he said, "The government says it is for security around Bujumbura, but you cannot take half a million people of the population into a camp without being able to assure their welfare.The army has many other possibilities to keep peace and security," Ntubantuganya said.
Jean Minani the president of the party, is not as moderate in his assessment."The situation in Burundi is very bad they are dying in the concentration camps,from sickness. The camp is a place to die," he said."There was no justice in Burundi, now there is no law, if you are a leader you can't continue like this," Minani told Africa News.
Many argue that part of the solution to the problem is to invite the two rebel parties previously not included in the talks to the table and say that the longer it takes to do so the more time for further fragmentation of rebel grouping creating radical elements that tend towards genocidal ideologies.
An analyst of the Burundi crisis and at one time facilitator Jan van Eck cautions on the impact of this. "The biggest problem is the Burundi Hutus and the Interahamwe were all in Congo together. The Interahamwe are co-operating inside Burundi. The longer this co-operation goes on, the more Burundi's opposition will be infected with this genocide thinking," Van Eck is quoted by agencies as saying.
Serious as the problem is, mediating peace talks among the Burundi parties is not an easy exercise. To begin with most parties have an internal and an external faction with the external faction usually being the more radical of the two. In addition two major rebel factions Forces pour la Defense de la Democratie (FDD), a radical split ofwing of Conseil National pour la Defense de la Democratie CNDD and Front National de Liberation ( FNL) have never been included in any negotiations. The facilitating team is expected to present a report within three months. Whether it will have succeeded in achieving a practical peace, one can only wait to see.
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