Burundi peace talks on track

Johannesburg, South Africa. March 10 2000

Foreign affairs: Minister Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma recently returned from Burundi

The Burundi peace process has a long way to go, but 'Madiba magic' has ensured that no faction now wants to be the spoiler at the talks.


Minister of Foreign Affairs Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma concluded a four day visit to Burundi on Monday, rounding off a remarkable two weeks of intense South African involvement in efforts to stop this tiny Central African nation's long-running civil war.

The week before Dlamini-Zuma's visit, former president Nelson Mandela had been in action in Arusha, Tanzania, mediating Burundian multiparty peace talks for the first time.

Mandela made an explosive impact in Arusha, injecting some much-needed momentum into a process characterised of late by a distinctly unproductive atmosphere of mutual suspicion and inertia.

The Arusha session began on February 21 amid allegations from predominantly Hutu parties that South Africa was biased against them. In his address to the plenary session, Mandela stressed that his bias was rather against incompetent and sectarian political operators from all sides who have so far failed to compromise and who have allowed the brutal civil conflict to continue for so long.

Mandela enraged predominantly Tutsi parties by stating baldly that Tutsi control of politics, commerce and the military had to be addressed. The Burundian government also took exception to Mandela's remarks, but ascribed them to Mandela having been poorly briefed by the Nyerere Foundation, which facilitates the talks. The worsening relationship between the foundation and the Burundi government will require careful handling by Mandela if he is to retain Tanzanian support without alienating the Burundian regime.

Although his comments about Tutsis grabbed most of the headlines, Mandela was far harsher on Burundi's predominantly Hutu rebel groups, whom he castigated as "barbarians and terrorists" for targeting civilians, demanding to know from them what kind of liberators they thought they were.

The leaders of the two main rebel groups, Jean-Bosco Ndaradengwe of the CNDD-FDD and Cossan Kabura of the PALIPEHUTU-FNL failed to turn up at Arusha, despite being invited for the first time, with organisers citing "logistical difficulties".

According to Mark Bomani of the Nyerere Foundation, South Africa sent an airplane to Lubumbashi to pick up Ndaradengwe, but he never made it to the tarmac. South African foreign affairs officials could not confirm this, and also claimed no knowledge of what some at the talks alleged -- namely that Democratic Republic of Congo President Laurent Desiré Kabila and even Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe have been exerting pressure on Ndaradengwe not to participate at Arusha.

Certainly, Kabila appears to have an interest in Ndaradengwe not getting too involved in peace talks, since he is using Ndaradengwe's militia as an effective substitute for an army of his own in his war against Congo's RCD and MLC rebel movements and their Rwandan and Ugandan backers. Meanwhile, Mugabe is believed to want an exit strategy from Congo, and leaving behind armed and trained Burundian rebel fighters to keep resisting the anti-Kabila forces is believed by many analysts to be part of that strategy. Sources close to the Arusha process, however, told the Mail & Guardian that they anticipated bilateral meetings between Mandela, Ndaradengwe and Kabura "soon", and the signs are that CNDD-FDD and PALIPEHUTU-FNL delegations could join the Arusha talks for the next round.

Mandela paved the way for the rebels' inclusion when he secured the admission of a radical Tutsi party called Rally for Democracy and Economic Social Development (Raddes) at the talks despite serious opposition, arguing that everyone who could influence the peace process should be represented at Arusha.

This inclusivity principle has been a sticking point since the talks began, but after Mandela's intervention Raddes's admission was agreed unanimously.

"I hate to use the overused cliché 'Madiba magic,'" said Jan van Eck of the Cape Town-based Centre for Conflict Resolution, who has been involved in Burundian peace talks since the start, "but it really was. In one swoop, he settled an issue which has held us back for years."

According to Van Eck, another master stroke of Mandela's was involving United States President Bill Clinton, who spoke to delegates by video linkup on February 22. Clinton said little of substance, but the fact of an African Nobel laureate greeting the US president with an affable, "Hi, Bill! How are you?" impressed on the delegates that they were receiving highest-level international attention in a way they never had before. The result, according to Van Eck, was that no participant now wants to be the spoiler at the talks.

Serious problems nonetheless remain. There is still no ceasefire, hundreds are dying because of the conflict each month, and the economy is nosediving. Furthermore, most of the parties at Arusha not only disagree with each other but also are internally split, with different factions still squabbling over accreditation. Delegates still seem a long way off from agreeing on a common document on peace and a new constitutional settlement.

During her four-day visit to Burundi after the Arusha talks, Dlamini-Zuma sought to help the process along, despite focussing mainly on bilateral relations between South Africa and Burundi, by meeting an astonishing variety of people, including representatives of all the main parties, the military, civil society bodies and inmates of camps of people both displaced by fighting and forcibly regrouped by government.

A joint statement issued at the end of Dlamini-Zuma's visit said that both the South African and Burundian governments wanted development aid to the country to start flowing again, putting the spotlight on the international community's and the European Union in particular's continued aid freeze, which began in 1996. Whether the international community responds or not, South Africa's standing in Burundi has never been higher.