Tomorrow, East African heads of state will assemble in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to discuss Burundi’s current political unrest that has killed at least 19 people and displaced more than 50,000 others, but can they find a lasting solution and help restore calm?
Everyone hopes so. But the determinant factors are inside Burundi where their counterpart, incumbent Pierre Nkurunziza, seems determined to participate in next month’s presidential election despite criticism that it’s against the Arusha accord that ended the country’s civil war.
President Jakaya Kikwete is the current chair of the East African Community (EAC) and it is his responsibility to rally his counterparts to urgently find a solution to prevent the Burundian power scuffle from getting nastier.
However, by yesterday, it wasn’t clear whether the Burundian leader would attend the meeting with a source at Rwanda’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs telling The New Times last evening that, “we can only wait and see, at the moment, saying anything would be to speculate.”
Analysts believe this is a rather tricky situation for the EAC leaders and one that will test their resolve to safeguard the region’s stability now and in the future, by resolving conflicts such as the one ongoing in Burundi.
On one hand, EAC leaders are under pressure from the Burundians as well as the international community to persuade their counterpart to abandon his third term bid and respect the 2000 Arusha accord which allows Burundian presidents to serve only two terms in office.
But on the other hand, Burundian institutions, frail as they might be, seem to be encouraging the President’s scheme and any external intervention from the EAC risks being seen as interference in Burundi’s sovereignty to decide on an internal matter.
After the country’s ruling party endorsed Nkurunziza for a third term in office, the constitutional court followed it up with a decision last week in which the judges decided that Nkurunziza’s decision was within the realm of the constitution and, at the weekend, Burundi’s electoral commission cleared his candidacy.
However, the legality of the ruling by the constitutional court remains highly questionable following the fleeing of the court’s vice president, who later disclosed details of how the judges were arm-twisted, influencing their decision.
These developments have provoked anger in Burundi where civil society and opposition politicians insist the country’s incumbent has no right to a third term; they have since been involved in running battles with police leaving 19 people killed.
Over 50, 000 civilians have fled Burundi since the beginning of April, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and over 25,000 of those are in Rwanda where they have been granted refugee status. Others are in Tanzania and DR Congo.
The international community has urged the region to engage actors in Burundi’s political theatre to resolve their differences and restore calm to avoid a deeper refugee crisis.
What can EAC do?
In their meeting tomorrow, the leaders are likely to consider findings by three EAC ministers of foreign affairs that President Kikwete dispatched to Burundi last week on a fact-finding mission.
Their instructions were to go to Bujumbura, meet the various stakeholders, assess the situation and file a report with possible solutions that the leaders can take to resolve the crisis.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Louise Mushikiwabo, who was part of the fact finding mission, will be in Dar es Salaam when the leaders meet, according to a source at the ministry.
But some analysts fear that the leaders might be divided on how to intervene in Burundi; to safeguard their own political interests, some might prefer to watch a little longer and see how the things play out after the election but others might want Nkurunziza to not run at all.
Therefore, for a long lasting solution, the leaders, must, first, harmonise their stand and act in unionism if the people of Burundi are to avoid the consequences of another civil war.
“Whatever they decide, the priority should be to prevent another civil war in Burundi that would have dire consequences on the entire region,” said one commentator on the region’s geopolitics.
The commentator says the Arusha accord that helped to end Burundi’s civil war was brokered by the countries of the region so the onus is equally on them to protect it and ensure that it’s respected.
Unfortunately, it might be too late for the region to try and save the Arusha accord given that Burundi’s constitutional court and the electoral commission have blessed Nkurunziza’s candidature in an election that he’s likely to ‘win’ next month.
So what will the leaders do in the event that Nkurunziza ‘wins’ the election next month to obtain a third term, albeit illegally?
“It will depend on how he manages the situation inside Burundi. If after the election he can settle the opposition and end the protests, the region might have no option but to play along,” opined the commentator.
However, should Nkurunziza fail to prevail over the internal situation and restore calm inside Burundi, it would give the region and international community an excuse to intervene, he adds.
Ahead of their meeting tomorrow, President Paul Kagame might have already set the tone following his remarks at the 45th St Gallen Symposium in Switzerland over the weekend when he said the will of the Burundian people must prevail and urged the leaders to heed.
“If your own citizens are telling you we don’t want you to do this or to lead us, it is because they are saying you are not delivering much to us. So how do you say I am staying anyway whether you want me or not? This is a serious problem,” Kagame told CCTV at the symposium.
Defiant: President Nkurunziza continues to defy both international, regional and local pressure to stand down. He says this would be his final term in office but Burundians insist he cannot run for the June 26 poll and must go.