Friday, September 01, 2006

Burundi: False coup claims will extend conflict

Burundi's newly minted leaders celebrated their first anniversary in power last week here in Bujumbura with long-winded speeches at a reception for the diplomatic community. Despite clear blue skies and warm breezes off Lake Tanganyika, there was little to celebrate. With the harsh return of political intolerance and repression in recent weeks, Burundians again face an uncertain future despite a near end of over a decade of vicious civil war.

The East African reported last week that International Crisis Group (ICG) officials had called for Pierre Nkurunziza's government to produce evidence for the alleged coup plot that has resulted in the detention and torture of some of the most powerful politicians in the country. The government is saying nothing, while it is busy intimidating and detaining its critics. Hundreds of suspected FNL collaborators (the remaining rebel group) including children as young as 12 years old, have been arrested and paraded publicly at a local stadium. Many are still detained and reports of torture from human rights groups allowed to visit their prison cells are surfacing in the local media.

Days ago, the acting Special Representative of the UN Secretary General, in country for over five years, was called upon to leave Burundi by the government, who gave no public reason for the demand. Burundi's leaders are clearly sore over the UN's recent questioning of the alleged coup plot and the government's crackdown on critics and adversaries.

In the present climate, however, it is certain that regional mediation efforts, particularly by South Africa, to broker a government deal with the FNL will go nowhere. Why would they want to surrender now when leaders from every other former rebel group are being rounded up, arrested and tortured? As one Burundian friend told me: "Former friends make the worst enemies." Peace talks with the FNL in Dar es Salaam broke down in July, the alleged coup plot was declared "foiled" on July 31, and the arrest of supposed coup plotters and FNL sympathizers began shortly thereafter. Many of those initially arrested were involved in FNL peace talks in Dar the month before. Rabid paranoia can eat up the minds of the craftiest former rebels, it seems.

As a backdrop to all this, the UN peacekeeping mission in Burundi (ONUB) is scheduled to withdraw in December 06 but with the FNL continuing to recruit youth to expand its troop numbers and continue attacks on government and civilian targets, Burundi may not be ready to return to its own devices.

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