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Talking peace in Burundi, once more at the cost of impunity?

On 10 June 2016, former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa travelled to Brussels to meet the leadership of Burundi’s opposition coalition CNARED (National Coalition for the Restoration of the Arusha Agreement and the Rule of Law). CNARED is a heterogeneous group of exiled Burundian politicians opposed to the third presidential term of Pierre Nkurunziza, president of Burundi. Nkurunziza was sworn in in August 2015 after his party CNDD-FDD (National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy) won the controversial elections which, according to the UN electoral observer mission, were held in an environment that was not conducive for free, credible, and inclusive elections. What started as an electoral third term crisis, has by now seriously undermined Burundi’s internationally applauded transition from conflict to peace. Unprecedented street protests against President Nkurunziza started after his nomination for a third term on 25 April 2015, despite a two term limit laid down in the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement of 28 August 2000. The protests culminated in a failed coup attempt on 13 May 2015, while Nkurunziza attended an extraordinary summit of the East African Community (EAC) on the political crisis in Burundi. For more than a year now, Burundi has been the scene of a political, security, and humanitarian crisis. Violence is particularly prominent in the capital city Bujumbura, where senior military officials, civil society activists, political party members and journalists are targeted by grenade attacks and shootings. Hundreds of civilians have been executed or forcibly disappeared; according to UNHCR, more than 260,000 Burundians fled their country since the start of the crisis.

In March 2016, the EAC appointed Mkapa as facilitator to assist the mediation led by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Mkapa’s visit to Brussels in June came shortly after a political dialogue he organized in Arusha (Tanzania) but failed to bring a political solution to the crisis. One of the controversial issues is the participation of CNARED in the talks, which the government is strongly opposed to, arguing that the UN Security Council urged for an inter-Burundian dialogue involving all peaceful stakeholders. According to the government, the CNARED leadership is responsible for the coup attempt of 13 May 2015 and is involved in the activities of the rebel movements that announced an armed struggle to topple the Nkurunziza government. When hosting a first round of the Burundi dialogue in Kampala (Uganda) in December 2015, mediator Yoweri Museveni called upon the government not to exclude the so-called ‘radical’ opposition but rather to grant them temporary immunity: ‘‘Don’t bring conditionalities […] These may be criminals.  But for the sake of peace, let’s assume… Just give them immunité provisoire.”

Yoweri Museveni, President, Uganda by Chatham House. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

Museveni’s suggestion is a reminder of a long-standing academic and policy debate about the clash between peace and justice. At first sight, the use of temporary immunity is a clever and clean device to handle the devil’s choice between short-term conflict resolution imperatives, and longer term human rights accountability requirements. Unlike blanket amnesties, temporary immunities suggest that talking peace merely delays but does not preclude truth and accountability for past violence and human rights violations. As a policy tool, temporary immunities therefore seem to be in line with the normative – but empirically shaky – argument that the peace versus justice dilemma is a false one. However, Burundi’s recent past sheds important light on the limitations and on the perverse longer term effects of the use of temporary immunity. Presenting Burundi’s experience with temporary immunity as a success story that offers valid inspiration for other conflict situations, as President Museveni did in July 2004 in a letter to UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan concerning the crisis in Ituri (Democratic Republic of the Congo) is therefore highly questionable.

In recent work, I’ve analyzed in more detail the longer term perverse effects of what, from a short term conflict settlement perspective, appears to be a useful instrument in the toolbox of mediators. Burundi’s transition from ethnic conflict to peace was based on a series of negotiated settlements and complex but successful political and military power-sharing arrangements. During the decade after the first post-conflict elections in 2005, Burundi seemed to be a success story of peace and reconciliation without truth and accountability for the horrendous crimes committed prior to and during the civil war that started in 1993, after the assassination of democratically elected president Melchior Ndadaye. The ongoing crisis triggered by the 2015 elections proves the failure of that experiment. If — once again — an internationally mediated dialogue and some kind of power-sharing compromise are to offer a way-out of the crisis, it is essential to avoid reproducing and internationally legitimizing the longer-term perverse effects of Burundi’s previous experience with temporary immunity.

What were those perverse effects? In summary, temporary immunity laid down in Burundi’s peace agreements turned out to be anything but temporary. Furthermore, it was granted not only to opponents and insurgents, but also to government security forces and pro-government militia members (today the infamous Imbonerakure CNDD-FDD youth wing). In addition, it did not only offer protection against prosecution (which is what immunity usually amounts to) but served additional purposes. Most worryingly, the design of temporary immunity legislation created an incentive structure to postpone, as much as possible, a process of truth telling and accountability for human rights crimes that were not covered by the temporary immunity. As a whole, Burundi’s earlier experience shows that temporary immunity was a stepping stone to peace but also to long lasting impunity. Even more worryingly, it created an incentive structure that encouraged recidivism by rewarding successful (insurgent and incumbent) entrepreneurs of conflict and violent repression. A renewed bite at the immunity cherry, without learning lessons from the previous bitter aftertaste, is therefore likely to sow the seeds of a new round of (electoral or other) political violence.

Feature image credit: Burundi Bujumbura 01 by Stefan Krasowski. CC-BY-2.0 via Flickr.

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