Buyoya is gone but peace in Burundi is still elusive

Pierre Buyoya, former president of Burundi, who twice seized power in military coup and oversaw a prolonged ethnic civil war that killed 300,000 Burundians, passed on at 71 on December 18. At the time of his death, Buyoya had been living in Mali, where he had held a post as envoy of the African Union. He had contracted Covid-19 in Mali and had been hospitalised there for a week at the Clinique Pasteur in the capital Bamako, before he was flown to France from where he died in an ambulance before reaching the hospital.

A member of the Tutsi minority that held power in Burundi for decades after the country’s 1962 Independence from Belgium, Buyoya was president for 13 years in total during two stints, from 1987 to 1993 and from 1996 to 2003.

Buyoya died just two months after being convicted in absentia by the Supreme Court of Burundi for the 1993 murder of his successor, the democratically elected Hutu Melchior Ndadaye, a killing that triggered more than a decade of bloodletting.

Besides him, 18 high ranking military officials and civilians who were close to Buyoya received the same sentence. Another three people were sentenced to 20 years in jail for “complicity” in the crimes, while a former prime minister Antoine Nduwayo was acquitted. And in an interesting turn of events, Buyoya had resigned from his post in Mali due to these convictions and this, he said, was to allow him more time to clear his name back home. 

He also said the convictions were politically motivated. Out of this, serious issues arise and must be paid attention to.

Buyoya left power in 2003, in respect of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, also known as the Arusha Accord, that was signed in August 2000 after protracted negotiations facilitated by ex-presidents Julius Nyerere and Nelson Mandela, and helped put an end to 12 years of civil war and cycles of massacres, including genocide. The war pitted Hutu rebels against successive Tutsi-dominated regimes. For many Tutsis, control of the military was seen as vital for their physical survival as a minority. While for the majority Hutus, the Tutsi-dominated army was the main obstacle in realising their political rights.

Ndadaye’s victory in 1993 was symbolic for the Hutus since many got convinced that it was now possible to win greater representation without resorting to arms. His assassination later the same year sapped this confidence, replacing it with widespread perceptions that the Tutsi-dominated military was bent on standing in the way of democracy.

As talks ensued, the mediation sought to balance two extremely complex questions. First was how to guarantee full political participation by the minority Tutsi population even when the prospects for winning competitive elections would remain slim in the foreseeable future. The second was how to alleviate the deep mistrust of the Hutu majority in the armed forces. These questions were resolved through four crucial instruments that formed the Arusha Accords and whose provisions were written into Burundi’s Constitution.

Now, the third term question of Pierre Nkurunziza, and the recent successful election of Nkurunziza-endorsed Evariste Ndayishimiye seem to be threatening the spirit of the Accords, or even reawakening the old antagonisms.

Hardliners in the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, questioned and continue to question the provisions of the Arusha Accords. They seem determined to expand their control over the political and military institutions, something the Accords specifically outlaw.

The obvious problem today is an effort by the CNDD-FDD, to remove references to and actually, in practice, reverse the provisions of the Arusha Agreement such as convicting those who previously held power like Buyoya, and this could slip Burundi back into violence, especially with more Opposition forces looking at the use of arms as means to political power. 

Mr Barigye is a labour rights activist.