Burundian refugees in a camp in Rwanda. Image credit: European Commission DG ECHO Burundian refugees in a camp in Rwanda. Image credit: European Commission DG ECHO

For the past few months diplomatic tensions between Rwanda and Burundi have been growing and the relationship between the two neighbours is deteriorating
For the past few months diplomatic tensions between Rwanda and Burundi have been growing and the relationship between the two neighbours is deteriorating. News of tensions and mutual accusations are circulating in local, regional and international media. The negative atmosphere between the two countries concerns every peacebuilder in the Great Lakes region and necessitates proactive interventions to prevent armed conflict. It is time for preventive diplomacy in order to re-establish good relationships between the countries.

Burundi and Rwanda share similar cultures and economic hardships. Both have a history marked by violent conflicts related to Hutu-Tutsi divisions. Though the approaches to respond to current challenges - such as reconciliation, democratization, and poverty reduction - differ, the two countries have gone through multifaceted violent conflicts, recorded traumatic experiences and are making efforts for recovery. Both are still fragile nations and need the support of the international community to overcome the challenges they face.

The recent political crisis that erupted in Burundi over the third term of President Pierre Nkurunziza has negatively affected the relationships between Burundi and Rwanda. Since April 2015, Rwanda has received more than 70,000 Burundian refugees. Among the refugees, there are politicians who are opposing the current regime, fighting against the recently contested election of President Nkurunziza (they claim that Nkurunziza's 3rd term violates the peace agreements that brought an end to the civil war).

Burundi has accused neighbouring Rwanda of facilitating and training rebels seeking to destabilise the country. It is hosting Burundi's failed coup leader, and helping rebels launch cross-border attacks, Burundian Foreign Minister Alain Nyamitwe told the BBC. The Minister clearly claimed that Rwanda was "facilitating" attacks that the coup plotters were orchestrating in Burundi. "We also have extensive information about recruitments in refugee camps, especially in Mahama refugee camp, where refugees are taken for military training, and some of the trainers are Rwandans," he added. A month before this interview, the same accusations were reported by Deutsche Welle.

This diplomatic spat follows months of deepening mutual mistrust between the two small East African neighbours
This diplomatic spat follows months of deepening mutual mistrust between the two small East African neighbours. Suspicions in Burundi that Rwanda was backing opponents of President Nkurunziza came to a head after a failed coup in May. "We know that some of the coup plotters are now living in Rwanda, at least three of them," Burundi’s foreign minister Alain Nyamitwe told the New York Times at the end of July. There was evidence that Rwanda was "not helpful" in this matter, he said.

On other side, Rwanda has categorically denied the accusations. Rather, the officials in Rwanda claim that this is a strategy of Burundi to divert attention from the internal political unrest . Besides the rejection of the allegations, Rwanda’s foreign ministry official Olivier Nduhungirehe accused Burundi of harbouring rebels from the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR) group, a military group linked to the Rwandan genocide and now based in Eastern DR Congo. Rwanda qualifies the FDLR as a terrorist group and has tirelessly made efforts to root out the group. There is an intensive campaign to eradicate this armed group in the region and internationally. If Rwanda suspects Burundi to host the members of the FDLR, it is a very serious issue considering the energy that the country‘s military services will need to deploy to defeat the group.

A regional solution?

Tentative efforts to resolve the diplomatic tensions should involve the international community. Regional organisations such as the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR), East Africa Community (EAC) , Economic Community of the Great Lakes Countries (CEPGL), and Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) can in one way or another,  contribute to finding a meeting ground and re-establishing good relationships between the two countries. They can support peer review mechanisms that could be established to end the tensions.

But, unfortunately, the regional bodies could face challenges to gain trust from both countries. For example, Burundi has recently expressed concern and mistrust towards the secretariat of the EAC headed by a Rwandan.  Another example comes from the ICGLR Ministers’ Conference held in New York in September: the participants discussed causes triggering Burundi - Rwanda tension. The communiqué released by Georges Chikoti, the conference chair and Angolan Minister of Foreign Affairs, says that ICGLR will send a verification mission to assess reasons leading to the tension. Explaining the issue, the chairperson Georges Chikoti said that Burundi blames the forces or elements who sought shelter in Rwanda for causing trouble in the neighbouring country, in violation of the pact on security, stability and development in the Great Lakes region. However, the ministers recommended the need to improve the situation. Rwanda should cease these kinds of activities, said the minister, pledging that the member States will send a verification mission to assess the situation on the ground. Rwanda opposes the communiqué and does not agree on its content.

The need for dialogue

Ordinary citizens are concerned. They are thirsty and hungry for peace
Though the support of the international community to resolve the issue is required, a durable and peaceful solution will come from within both countries. They have to search for a common meeting ground, speak truth to one another and jointly work together for reaching a diplomatic solution. Multiple interests, political calculations, international dynamics, and multiple actors in the conflict make this difficult but nonetheless essential. It is difficult to know the truth regarding the violent conflicts in the region and about all active stakeholders. But, with the time, the truth will be revealed soon or later.

Ordinary citizens are concerned. They are thirsty and hungry for peace. They need peace as a condition for sustainable human development. They are friends, neighbours, brothers and sisters. In every crisis, the population of one country sought asylum in the other. Burundians offered asylum to Rwandans who were forced to live in exile in 1959, 1960-1973, and in 1994. Many Rwandans are grateful of having been accepted as refugees in Burundi during the deplorable massacres and genocide that occurred in Rwanda in the past. Rwandans also provided shelter to Burundians who fled their country in 1972, 1988, and recently since April 2015. Remembering the sense of humanness and human interconnectedness they experienced in people from both sides during turbulent times, they need resolve the tensions  peacefully and pray for the re-establishment of good relationships between their countries.