NAIROBI: A year after Burundi was plunged into chaos, peace efforts are deadlocked in the troubled central African country with the opposition divided and power in the hands of hardliners, analysts say.
The government insists that a year of unrest is at an end with the capital Bujumbura relatively calm after a string of attacks — including a failed coup in May 2015 — but tensions remain and many warn of the risk of a fresh explosion of violence.
Hundreds have been killed and quarter of a million people have fled Burundi since President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial decision last April to run for a third term, a vote he won amid opposition boycotts in July.
“After the election fever and the violence that accompanied this process, the situation has returned to normal,” presidential press chief Willy Nyamitwe told Agence France-Presse.
“Now the time is to work for development and the fight against poverty,” he added.
The lakeside capital Bujumbura is certainly calmer, after weeks of battles between the security forces and those opposed to Nkurunziza’s third term.
The once near-daily grenade blasts have also decreased.
“Burundi’s government can’t hide their satisfaction because they believe that the terrorist forces have been destroyed and order restored,” said Andre Guichaoua, from France’s Paris-Sorbonne University, a leading specialist in Africa’s Great Lakes region.
The government crackdown involved the brutal repression of street protests, but today security forces stem opposition more discreetly, after rights groups reported dead bodies being found on the city’s streets almost daily.
Last month, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein said reports of torture have increased since the beginning of the year and many people there now “live in terror”.
Diplomats say the crushing of the opposition has further undermined respect for the law.
One described how “power is now in the hands of a small hard core”, mainly top generals close to Nkurunziza since they fought together in the bush in the 1993-2006 civil war between the mostly Tutsi army and predominantly Hutu rebel groups.
Those controlling power today are, like Nkurunziza, Hutus and have “set up a system of repression” based on core loyalist units within the varied security forces — police, army, intelligence and the notorious Imbonerakure, the ruling party’s youth wing militia.
The Imbonerakure — whose name means “The Watchmen” or, literally, “Those Who See Far” — have been accused of carrying out the regime’s dirty work using barbaric methods.
The UN says more than 400 people have been killed since the beginning of the crisis, thousands arrested and more than 250,000 have fled abroad, while rights groups say that torture and extrajudicial killings have become commonplace.
Things may appear more calm, but “the situation is not under control”, warned Thierry Vircoulon of the International Crisis Group (ICG) think tank.
He said the appearance of a lull in violence was “deceptive”, and had been driven by “international pressure on the government” and the opposition’s change of tactics in launching attacks against the security forces.
With the opposition split — despite efforts to bring them together under the main umbrella opposition group CNARED, whose leaders are in exile — there seems little chance of a solution in the near future.
Rebel forces and armed opposition are divided and they “discredit themselves with a war of communiques”, added Vircoulon.
The international community is little better however, with analysts criticizing the inability to find a “real” solution to the crisis — and the government is exploiting those divisions.
It is acutely aware of a “red line” the international community would not allow them to cross — genocide or regional destabilization — said Christian Thibon an expert on Central Africa from Franc’s University of Pau.
As long as the trouble in Burundi remains “a low-intensity conflict” and the international community is not forced to act to avert disaster, those divisions are “here to stay”, Thibon added.
Despite repeated calls from the international community for “inclusive dialogue”, the government has remained defiant and has refused to sit with the opposition in exile, which it accuses of being behind the violence.
“In light of the divisions within the international community, nothing is pressuring the government to act swiftly,” the diplomat said, suggesting it will “take several months at a minimum before real negotiations start.”
Without solutions, the pressure mounts.
One Burundi-based analyst warned of a “potentially explosive situation” amid the continued violence with fears the conflict is increasingly based along ethnic lines.