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Dialogue needed in Burundi

Jesko Johannsen, Bujumbura /lwDecember 8, 2015

Burundi has been in the throes of a political crisis for months. Fear and violence are everywhere. Now the government is in talks with the EU in Brussels. But dialogue and reconciliation seem a long way off.

Symbolbild - Schwieriger Dialog in Burundi
Image: Getty Images/AFP/P. Moore

Burundi's government spokesman Willy Nyamitwe has a smile on his face. He is sure of one thing. "Hutus and Tutsis are living together, they are not going to fight. There is no threat of civil war or genocide in our country." It's only a small group disturbing the peace with night time attacks, he says.

But the United Nations is warning of genocide. The country has a similar ethnic makeup to its neighbor, Rwanda, dominated by Hutus and Tutsis. Between 2003 and 2006, tensions between the two ethnic groups fuelled a civil war in which more than 200,000 people died. Experts fear the current crisis could escalate into a new civil war.

Willy Nyamitwe
Government spokesman Willy Nyamitwe plays down the scale of the crisisImage: DW/J. Johannsen

In Burundi's capital Bujumbura, there are shootings and explosions almost every night. Bodies are found almost every morning. The dead are thought to be mostly supporters of the opposition.

Behind the violence and insecurity is the controversy surrounding President Nkurunziza's candidacy and reelection. Although the constitution allows two terms in office, Nkurunziza was elected for a third term in July.

Running out of time

Despite the risks, resistance to President Pierre Nkurunziza's third term in office continues. "We're in a situation where there could be war," says Denis Ndayishemeza from the human rights organization Focode (Forum pour la Conscience et le Developpement), which was recently banned by the government. "If we don't start a dialogue now, it will be too late. The atmosphere in Burundi is tense. Even when we drive out to the countryside we can sense that people are afraid."

Nearly everyone in Bujumbura knows someone who has been arrested. Local taxi driver Charles (not his real name) told DW that his brother was sentenced to two years in jail. He was accused of having taken part in demonstrations. "The police suddenly come and arrest people who have done nothing," he says. "Then they put them in prison. So the public no longer trusts the police."

Burundian policeman look at a white cloud of tear gas fired at protestors
Violent protests started when President Pierre Nkurunziza bid for a third term in office back in April 2015Image: Reuters/G. Tomasevic

For months, there have been calls for dialogue over the political crisis. The African Union, the East African Community and the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region, a coalition of twelve countries including Burundi, are involved in trying to solve the problem. Just one key character is missing from the discussions: President Nkurunziza. For him it's business as usual: meeting with his soldiers or his cabinet. It seems he doesn't want to know about a crisis. "He comes to work every morning at 6:30 and stays until three in the afternoon," says his adviser Nyamitwe. "People who don't know the truth think that in this country, we are under fire. But he's just like me: he's laughing, he's interacting with people, he's organizing meetings. He doesn't fear anything."

A national dialogue - but without civil society

Justin Nzosaba
Bishop Justin Nzosaba is leading the Dialogue CommissionImage: DW/J. Johannsen

Under President Nkurunziza, Burundi's government has suggested a national dialogue and has set up a special commission to organize it. Every citizen should be allowed to take part, says Bishop Justin Nzosaba, head of the newly formed Inter-Burundian Dialogue Commission (CNDI). But part of the Burundian civil society is excluded from the reconciliation process: In November, the country's interior minister closed down the ten most important local NGOs - for taking part in protests. They are not allowed to take part in the national dialogue. "But they are Burundian. We can still meet with them personally, no problem," says Nzosaba.

Human rights activist Denis Ndayishemeza, who worked with one of the banned groups, thinks a successful dialogue will depend on more than just who is allowed to take part. "The most important thing is that everyone does their best to sit down together and discuss a way for this country to return to peace," he says.

Faustin Ndikumana
Faustin Ndikumana's organization was closed downImage: DW/J. Johannsen

Faustin Ndikumana from Parcem, (Parole et Action pour le Reveil des Consciences et l'Evolution des Mentalites), a human rights organization which was also banned, sees things differently. He wants exiled Burundians to have a voice in the dialogue. But they don't dare to re-enter the country. "If we want to have a well integrated dialogue, we have to offer amnesty to Burundians in exile or hold the dialogue outside of Burundi," he says.

No sign of peace on Bujumbura's streets

New talks between government representatives from Burundi and the EU are currently taking place in Brussels. Government spokesman Willy Nyamitwe expects "that Burundi's voice will finally be heard. People will realize that their criticism of Burundi was based on false reports and statements. We expect the European Union to understand that Burundi needs to move forward with its development." Burundi is expecting the EU to support it in this, Nyamitwe added.

But on Burundi's streets there is no sign of engagement or dialogue, says activist Denis Ndayishemeza. "In my part of the city, most residents are against President Nkurunziza's third term. The police check everyone coming in to the area." He has this message for Nkurunziza's opponents: "We are organizing new elections in 2020. People have to wait to come into power through elections, through a democratic process."

Denis Ndayishemeza
Activist Denis Ndayishemeza sees talks as the way forwardImage: J. Johannsen

Burundi could be running out of time. Observers fear there could soon be a new escalation of violence. For weeks, rumors have been circulating that a rebel army is being recruited in refugee camps in Rwanda. Rwanda's government is thought to be actively involved. Journalists are now only rarely granted access to Rwanda's largest refugee camp in the south of the country.