Burundi, the small land-locked country in the Great Lakes Region of Africa, which has been at the heart of one of Africa’s most intractable ethnic conflicts, is finally beginning to see the benefits of a peace process. Using traditional mediation systems and peacemakers, the country is introducing innovative peace and reconciliation projects. The aim is to start a grass roots movement to bring a lasting peace to the Burundi and its long-suffering citizens. With the country’s first post-conflict elections scheduled at the beginning of November, this timely programme examines the future for Burundi, for power sharing and for a rapprochement between warring factions.
Philippe Mvuyekure has spent the last five years living in a refugee camp in Tanzania. Now, he’s on his way home. He’s among thousands of refugees convinced that Burundi’s bitter, 10-year civil war may be coming to an end. ‘I haven’t heard anything from my mother and my family since I fled five years ago. I miss them and want to see them,’ he says.
But just as Philippe and others are making their way home, there are new questions about how best to defuse future conflicts, and the role that economic development plays in building lasting peace. Using traditional mediation systems and peacemakers, the country is introducing innovative peace and reconciliation projects. The aim is to start a grass roots movement to bring a lasting peace to the Burundi and its long-suffering citizens.
The country’s first multi-party elections since the war began will be held soon, but Raymond Kamenyero, of the religious charity the Company of the Apostles of Peace, explains why not everyone welcomes the elections: ‘Burundians are afraid of elections. Early in 1961 the first President of Burundi was assassinated just after the elections. In 1965 the first Prime Minister who was Hutu was also assassinated just after elections. In 1993 the first elected President was also assassinated after the elections, so you see there really is a reason for Burundians to be afraid of elections.’
These fears are intensified by the 55,000 former rebel fighters who have yet to give up their weapons. Tipping the scale toward peace requires rebuilding the country’s economy quickly. Not only to give rebel soldiers a reason to turn in their weapons, but to rebuild hospitals and schools. All of this requires money that the government doesn’t have. Since the war began, export revenues from coffee, for example, have fallen by half.
Athanase Gahungu, Minister of Finance, explains: ‘Before the war Burundi managed to feed its population. The Government could pay its civil servants without too many problems. Nowadays, we must borrow from the Central Bank in order to be able to pay their salaries.’
This is the paradox – war-ravaged economies like Burundi’s need outside assistance to offer people an alternative to conflict, while international donors want peace before they commit funds.
But for Philippe and other returning refugees, there are still many obstacles to overcome. Cassien Nyandwi is trying to rebuild his life alongside former enemies. ‘It happened at night. We were all here in this house. My daughter was asleep with me when the attackers broke in. I took her and ran away. My wife also ran, but she wasn’t fast enough and they caught her and killed her. People need to talk about what happened so they can restart their lives. But there are no authorities who can listen to us and we still fear reprisals.’
After 10 years in a refugee camp, Cassien recently returned home to discover his land had been sold to another man. Cassien is a subsistence farmer. He can’t survive without land. Cassien hopes to find a peaceful solution instead by taking his case to the Bashingantahe – a council of wise elders in his village.
The Bashingantahe is one of the only traditional institutions to survive European colonialization and war. For hundreds of years, councils like this one have defused conflicts and dispensed justice. Its members are considered the wisest and most trustworthy in the community. Now, in the wake of war, these traditional reconciliation councils maybe the only hope for continued peace in villages across the country.
Apollinaire Rujongo, leader of the Bashingantahe, says: ‘The population is growing bigger but there is not enough land to go around, so people try to steal land from their neighbours.’
Now, instead of dictating where aid is to go, the Government is encouraging the formation of Community Development Committees – made up of members democratically elected from the villages they represent – to decide what assistance is needed and what kinds of economic activities should be developed. These Development Committees were first introduced by the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) while working in Rwanda after the genocide. Now there are already over 1,000 in Burundi.
Says Abla Benhammouche of IFAD: ‘When we started to work in Burundi, we were faced with similar problems of disharmony in the community and mistrust. But in addition to that, we were left with communities that were left on their own because of lack of resources due to conflict and lack of international resources.’
Cassilde Gwampamwe, a widow with nine children, wants a better life, so she attends a development committee meeting. In communities like Muhanga, development committees are the economic equivalent to the Bashingantahe, except they use international aid and development projects to rebuild and strengthen communities.
Members of the Muhanga development committee have decided to identify all those, like Cassilde, who are in immediate need of help. They use traditional mediation practices, and everything is done publicly. Reverien Nurwakera, a member of the Muhanga Development Committee, explains that it is important to reduce the risk of corruption and favouritism: ‘There are some people who think the development committee does not work fairly. But often those are the people who would like the aid to come directly to them so that they could make a profit from it or give it to their friends.’
A few weeks later, Cassilde receives tools to help her grow food for her family.
Eduardo Nkurumziza, Governor of Kayanza province, explains how important the committees are becoming: ‘Today we are in the final phase of forming development committees throughout the province. We are analysing how to incorporate, at the committee level, the fight against AIDS, conflict resolution, the entire national reconciliation process, health and education, so that these committees address all aspects of integral development for the people.’
Philippe goes home and finds his family. But he worries what will happen if there is not enough aid or jobs. ‘Right now I’m happy to see my mother and my sisters. Everyone is safe. But I’m wondering what I’ll do next. Peace is not only the absence of war. I don’t think there can be peace when people can’t grow enough food to eat and there are no other jobs or opportunities to help them. If nothing is done, this situation could provoke another war.’
In the Wake of War is co-produced by TVE and the UN International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD). Visit IFAD’s own web pages on this programme, including a trailer, IFAD’s Conflict Fact Sheet, and information on conflict in other places.
Raymond Kaneyero’s organisation, the Compagnie des Apotres pour la Paix (website in French), was created in 1996 by a number of Hutu and Tutsi who rejected the violent climate between the two groups. Since then, the organisation has been working on peace building and conflict resolution throughout Burundi.
Read the text of the Arusha Peace and Reconcilation Agreement for Burundi, and the background to the UN Operation in Burundi.
The Global Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Project has pages on the situation in Burundi.
The UN office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) has a Burundi website, with maps and news.
The International Crisis Group lists a number of reports about Burundi.
The charity ActionAid has supported the rebuilding of the traditional systems of conflict resolution and peace building, the Bashingantahe.