How Burundi is exporting its demons into the EAC

Five months ago, when the newly appointed East African Community (EAC) Secretary-General from Burundi, Liberat Mfumukeko, was sworn-in, many observers had doubts about his ability to remain neutral in the fulfillment of his duties, particularly when it would come to dealing with the crisis in his country of origin.

Five months ago, when the newly appointed East African Community (EAC) Secretary-General from Burundi, Liberat Mfumukeko, was sworn-in, many observers had doubts about his ability to remain neutral in the fulfillment of his duties, particularly when it would come to dealing with the crisis in his country of origin.

It was indeed when Burundi decided to skip its turn at the Chairmanship of the EAC that its government pushed for the appointment of its national to the position of Secretary-General, which in principle was agreed to by the other partner states. This alone should have raised about a dozen red flags. However, unwritten rules of diplomacy require such administrations to move with caution, making sure that the next move does not put the organisation at risk.


I suspect that John Pombe Magufuli, President of Tanzania and current Chairperson of the EAC Summit, had an in-depth discussion with his peers, eventually reassuring President Paul Kagame who had been targeted by recent “inflammatory statements” from Burundi’s ruling party CNDD/FDD, about his own ability to contain and handle it from his position. Maybe that is why President Magufuli saw it fit to remind the new SG about serving the community as a whole versus representing his native country’s interests.


Yet it is becoming increasingly evident that Mr Mfumukeko has made his choice with regard to whose interests he is out to serve. A good indication is the fact that he has personally never set foot on Rwandan soil since taking his oath of office. Not even when his presence has been required at major regional and continental summits and conferences taking place in Kigali. 


The 17th African Union Heads of State Summit came and went. So did the recently-concluded The Global Africa Investment Summit, to name only two.

One can hardly overlook the anti-Rwanda stance of his native country as the probable cause of his repeated absences from such major events.

It has indeed been the strategy from the moment Pierre Nkurunziza and his government decided to turn their backs on the Arusha Peace Agreements, to accuse Rwanda of trying to destabilise Burundi. 

The anti-Kigali rhetoric from the Burundian authorities started mildly and increased in intensity when Dr Richard Sezibera, former EAC Secretary-General of Rwandan nationality, was manhandled by Burundian security agents while deployed by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, along with with Ugandan Defense minister Kiyonga, on a mission to resume the inter-Burundian talks.  

During one of those sessions, he was bluntly confronted by representatives of the Burundian government and ruling CNDD/FDD party, accusing him of working for Rwanda to destabilise Burundi. It was to be the trigger to a campaign of harassment of Rwandan nationals on Burundian soil, comprising illegal arrests and even extra-judicial killings. This has impacted directly on free movement by people and goods from Rwanda to Burundi.

Of recent, Burundian authorities and, more precisely Pascal Nyabenda, the Speaker of the National Assembly and CNDD/FDD chair dabbled in genocide denial by alleging that the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda never happened.

For the sake of clarity, EAC Secretary-General Liberat Mfumukeko has not personally been engaging in this kind of rhetoric, at least not in public. That said, his alignment with Burundian domestic policy and the resultant attitude towards Rwanda becomes evident beyond his absence from a few conferences.  

When dealing with the Burundian crisis Mr Mfumukeko made a number of questionable decisions that are a wee bit too convenient for the Burundian government to simply ignore.

At the top of the list comes the sidelining, in the run-up to the EAC-led inter-Burundian inclusive talks, of all traditional partners of the EAC in conflict resolution initiatives, such as the EAC Panel of Eminent Personalities together with the COMESA Committee of Elders, the Conflict Resolution Unit, the African Union and the United Nations, to name only a few. And their deeper understanding and knowledge of the Burundi crisis had guided EAC Emergency Summits of May and July 2015.

The United Nations and the AU too had pledged technical and financial support to the Inter-Burundi dialogue process but Mr Mfumukeko decided to ensure these important stakeholders stayed out of the picture.

He went on to carefully craft a list of participants to the talks, comprising individuals deemed favourable to the Burundian authorities. In that way, he kept out key players such as the political opposition platform CNARED, Human Rights organisations, and Civil Society Organisations, all of them in exile.

He then made it next to impossible for the mediator, Benjamin Mkapa, to meet with them in Brussels. He flatly refused to finance the trip.

It took heavy-handed intervention by President Magufuli for him to reluctantly cooperate in the matter.

Then came the Sectoral Council of Ministers. Going against the advice of his deputies, Mfumukeko took it upon himself to change the terms of reference of a team tasked to assess the security situation in Burundi as directed by the Council. The nature of these items placed the Ministers in the awkward position of asking him to leave the room while they discussed how to best handle the situation.

According to reliable internal sources, the report of the team had been choreographed by the SG himself to describe the security situation in Burundi as stable and good at the height of the crisis and gruesome death tolls. And the SG had used the report to point an accusatory finger at Rwanda.

Observers attribute the move to the fact that the EAC had suspended all activities in Burundi. Changing the minds of members of the Council of Ministers who report directly to the Heads of State was, therefore, a desperate attempt to get them to overturn a decision previously made by the outgoing SG to suspend all the EAC’s activities in Burundi.

There was also the issue of the wrongful dismantling of the Peace and Security Department, ostensibly due to lack of funding. It is worth recalling that diehards of the Burundian regime had for quite some time labeled the Department of Peace and Security as ‘hostile to the cause’.

In this case, the decision was overturned by the Council of Ministers, which directed Mr Mfumukeko to rescind it and settle out of court the cases of wrongful termination of that department’s members of staff.

It is worth noting that the Council expressed serious concerns about the violation of procedures by the SG in his attempt to close the peace and security department. His unwillingness to follow due process will certainly be further uncovered by the East African Community Legislative Assembly (EALA) Committee on regional Affairs and Conflict Resolution, which was tasked to investigate this matter.

But even though the Secretary General was directed to repeal his personal decision he did not obey. Since the HR department prepared the correspondence on the day after the Council meeting, he refused to sign it. It took the East African Court to issue an ultimatum for Mr Mfumukeko to eventually obey and prove it by dropping off signed copies in court.

Also on the long list of contentious issues to be looked at by a number of committees within the EALA is the unreported breach of the Common Market Act by Burundi at its border with Rwanda.

In view of all that was highlighted, there is little doubt as to whose interests the current Secretary-General of the EAC serves: an embattled group of politicians in Burundi.

Considering Burundi had been given a golden opportunity to rectify the disrespect they had shown for the institutions when they manhandled the former EAC Secretary General in Bujumbura, there is no more doubt that they opted for exporting their demons into the East African Community instead.

This all sets a dangerous precedent that ought to be addressed with the maturity of an ambitious organisation that today holds the rank of most successful economic bloc on the continent. Can the Community retain its rank given a Secretary General who has lost all credibility in the eyes of internal bodies and staff, but also beyond …in only five months?

The writer is a political analyst for the Great Lakes region

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