- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 18, 2004

BUJUMBURA, Burundi — Tiny Burundi has seen more than a decade of war, but events in the past few months suggest that it is closer than ever to wrapping up one of Africa’s most persistent civil conflicts.

Since the country’s largest rebel group signed a cease-fire with the government of President Domitien Ndayizeye, hostilities wound down rapidly in most of Burundi, a hilly, densely populated nation. Only in a few suburbs of the capital, Bujumbura, which sits astride the beautiful Lake Tanganyika, is a last, tiny rebel group still carrying on the fight.

“We have seen brisk change in the entire country,” said Adrien Ndayisaba, executive director of the Burundian human rights group Iteka. “People can travel without fear of ambushes all along the roads.”

But during the past week, Burundi’s problems have overlapped viciously with those of the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, demonstrating how closely the destinies of Burundi, Congo and nearby Rwanda are linked.

Last week, an unholy alliance of Burundian rebels and Rwandan guerrillas from Congo massacred more than 160 civilians who had fled Congo’s war earlier this year for a refugee camp just inside Burundi.

“We will collaborate with the Congo government and make all efforts to ensure that such crimes never happen again,” Mr. Ndayizeye said during a visit to the camp on Saturday.

Burundi’s civil war, which began in 1993, stems from a combination of ethnic conflicts and naked power struggles, both of which have proved stubbornly difficult to put to rest.

The former Belgian colony has roughly the same ethnic makeup as northern neighbor Rwanda, with about 14 percent from the Tutsi tribe and 85 percent from the Hutu group. Though the conflict never exploded into outright genocide as it did in Rwanda in 1994, Burundi has been racked by tension since independence in 1962, when Tutsis assumed a firm hold on the country’s key institutions of power, especially the army, which periodically massacred Hutus.

Under heavy international pressure, President Pierre Buyoya, a Tutsi, stepped down in 1993 when a Hutu was elected president, but renegade Tutsi army officers killed the new chief executive a few months later. Hutu leaders streamed into the hills and began a 10-year insurgency that the army sought to suppress mercilessly. Up to 300,000 people have died since then.

Efforts at finding a political solution came to naught until former South African President Nelson Mandela took charge of mediation efforts in the late 1990s. The result was a peace accord signed in Arusha, Tanzania, in August 2000 by the key Hutu and Tutsi political parties, but not by rebels.

It foresaw a turnover of the presidency from Mr. Buyoya, who had retaken power in a coup, to Mr. Ndayizeye, a Hutu, and cease-fires with the various rebel groups. The country also is supposed to hold elections by Oct. 31, when the transition period mandated by the accord officially ends. The first goal was reached last year, when Mr. Ndayizeye assumed the presidency, and the second is nearing fruition. The third is proving the toughest task.

In the neighborhood of Kamenge, in Bujumbura, residents have enjoyed relative calm for nearly 10 months. The area used to be a favorite hiding place of rebels from the Forces for the Defense of Democracy (FDD), the main Hutu rebel group, which signed a cease-fire with the government in December. Previously, the Burundian army often would retaliate massively against the neighborhood, raining explosives and heavy machine-gun fire on rebels and civilians alike.

“There was no trust between the people and the government,” said Claude Massop, a 32-year-old man who has lived in Kamenge for most of his life.

But now that the cease-fire has held, alongside the destroyed mud-brick houses and burned-out shells of other buildings, residents have left pile after pile of new construction materials. Already, numerous new edifices have sprung up, and inhabitants are able to move about freely. Others, like Mr. Massop, can sit around quietly without fear of bullets.

FDD troops patrol the area alongside soldiers from the government forces, and some have even donned government uniforms as they prepare for integration into a new, unified army.

“It’s paradise,” said one FDD soldier, who refused to give his name but was clearly enjoying the light peacetime duty. “There’s no problem here.”

Yet one small rebel group, the Forces of National Liberation (FNL), remains in the hills outside Bujumbura. It has consistently refused to negotiate with the government, but it sought contact with the head of the new United Nations mission in Burundi, Carolyn McAskie, after combined operations of the FDD and government troops seized control of much of its territory. Mrs. McAskie now thinks they can be persuaded to lay down their weapons.

“They want to be heard, and I can do that,” she said.

But on Friday, groups of armed men entered a refugee camp near Bujumbura and massacred more than 160 Tutsis who had left Congo earlier this year. The FNL claimed responsibility for the deeds, but observers think the men were aided by Rwandan Hutu rebels who have holed up in Congo since helping to commit the 1994 genocide against Tutsis in Rwanda.

But the final political resolution that will make it possible to elect a government in Burundi has proved the toughest task of all.

As the election date approaches, the main Tutsi political party, Uprona, has demanded explicit guarantees that Tutsis hold certain offices even after the elections. Frodebu (Front for Democracy in Burundi), the party of Mr. Ndayizeye, has agreed to demands that 40 percent of delegates to the national assembly and 50 percent of the new senate be Tutsi. But Frodebu has balked at demands that a Tutsi vice president retain effective veto power over presidential decrees after the election. The violence last week against Congolese Tutsis is bound to make this disagreement much more pointed, said Jan van Eck, a Burundi analyst at the Institute for Strategic Studies in Pretoria, South Africa.

“It merely … highlights the ethnic nature of the conflict and can only lead to Tutsis feeling even less secure than they say they are,” Mr. van Eck told the Associated Press. “It obviously makes power sharing between the parties much more difficult due to the consequence of decrease in trust.”

An intensive mediation session early this month in South Africa failed to break the deadlock. Another effort in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, is planned for early next month. But the delay in getting a political deal has raised fears that it will not be logistically possible to hold elections in Burundi before Oct. 31, when the transition officially ends and the current government’s legitimacy ends.

Mrs. McAskie said she thought political resolution would allow the parties to pass a new electoral law, and approve a new constitution. So, even if the elections are not held on time, the government will have firm legal standing.

“The date is not so important,” Mrs. McAskie said. “What’s important is having a legal and constitutional basis for the government.”

The sudden outbreak of peace has given a boost to Burundi’s economy. During the war, peasants ceased to cultivate their fields because of security concerns. Now, rice and bean production is rising steadily, and foreign investors have expressed tentative interest in tourism, construction and a small sliver of territory that might be ripe for gold mining.

“We haven’t seen this [type of interest] for a long time,” said Cyrille Sigenda, president of Burundi’s Chamber of Commerce.

Importantly for long-term growth, Burundi’s coffee industry, which accounts for 80 percent of its hard-currency earnings, is recovering. With the fighting subsiding, peasants have been able to cultivate their fields regularly.

“The producers are at home and they are taking care of the plants,” said Barthelemie Niyakiza, head of Ocibu, Burundi’s main coffee exporter. “The effects of a better security situation are clearly visible.”

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