Yesterday was another eventful day for Burundi: the newly proclaimed rebel group FOREBU (Republican Force of Burundi) announced its leadership, while crowds of pro-government supporters welcomed the UN Security Council delegation in Bujumbura for its first visit in 10 months – an attempt to push for inclusive peace talks and “accelerate the mediation process” to bring the fighting to a stop.
At night, the increasingly routine “lullaby” of automatic gunfire and grenade blasts came with more intensity – hardly a coincidence as world leaders enjoyed their first dinner in town alongside government officials. Explosions rocked most opposition neighborhoods of the capital and, according to reports, two mortar shells were fired on Rohero district in the center of Bujumbura, landing not far from the Presidency.
Today UNSC delegates met with representatives from government, allied political parties, civil society, religious leaders in Karuzi (eastern Burundi) and the President himself in Gitega, in the center of the country.
That the FOREBU declaration – an audio file transmitted to AFP – coincided with the UNSC visit is not surprising: a willingness to establish itself as a “legitimate” force, gain credibility in the eyes of the international community and potentially be included in future peace talks. But the rise of rebel movements in Burundi can be seen as a consequence of slow international community response on the crisis – not merely a response to international attention. If FOREBU, like all other rebel groups, seeks global “PR” and recognition, it is also undoubtedly in fighting mode, trying to remove President Nkurunziza by force.
The newly appointed chief of FOREBU, Gen. Niyombare, is not a “nobody.” Chief of staff of Burundi’s army from 2009, he became head of intelligence services in 2014 – although for a short time. He was sacked in February of 2015 for opposing a third term for President Nkurunziza, and writing an intelligence memo exposing the dangers of such a venture. After two weeks of anti-third term protests, he led a coup on May 13 which failed within 48 hours, and subsequently “evaporated” in nature with some hundreds of troops.
FOREBU rebels reportedly have rear bases in the hills of Bujumbura-rural surrounding the capital, and launch attacks from there using the southern district of Musaga as entry point into the capital. Even though FOREBU was not officially declared at the time, they are the likely perpetrators of the attacks on Bujumbura military camps in early December. Through what seems to be their official Twitter account, they claimed responsibility in Kirundi for last night’s attacks on police positions in the northern districts of Mutakura and Cibitoke, and in the south of the capital (Kinanira, Musaga). Moreover, FOREBU seems established in some parts of southern provinces of the country – Makamba and Rumonge – as intensifying raids and weapons thefts since December would indicate.
But another rebel group seems to have emerged in Burundi, RED-TABARA (Resistance for the Rule of Law), with the alleged involvement of opponent Alexis Sinduhije, who was recently sanctioned by the United States. With young recruits who protested in the first months of the crisis, RED’s domain of operation would be central opposition neighborhoods of the capital: namely Nyakabiga, Jabe and Bwiza.
FOREBU and RED-TABARA are apparently engaged in a communication war, with FOREBU rejecting on Twitter RED’s alleged use of mortar attacks, condemning the unnecessary killing of civilians, and RED mocking FOREBU as officers lacking ground combatants in a post by Gratien Rukindikiza and in WhatsApp messages disseminated among opposition supporters. But RED has not made any official announcement or declaration to the press yet. In any case, the security situation in and surrounding Bujumbura looks increasingly complex, and bound to deteriorate.
It is highly unlikely rebels would be included in negotiations this “early” on, after their declaration and the UNSC visit, but they have attempted to show they are a force to be reckoned with. With the official emergence of FOREBU headed by Gen. Niyombare, the prospect of an AU or UN peacekeeping force will become all the more relevant in the weeks and months to come. The African Union is continuing to push for peacekeepers despite Burundi’s ardent refusal, and hopes the government will eventually give its consent for deployment. If the UNSC hopes its visit will lead to a breakthrough in resolving the crisis, it will need to weigh the formation of rebel groups in the balance, and the evident risk of more attacks and/or retaliatory killings.
Peacekeeping doesn’t come without its challenges – around the world peacekeepers are accused of passivity, incompetence, abuses – but it is hard to imagine an increasingly fragmented Burundi moving toward peace in 2016 without a neutral force for disarmament, civilian protection, and atrocity prevention.
Current talks are at a deadlock because the government refuses to dialogue with violent groups and because opposition (violent or not) refuse to consider any form of political solution that maintains Nkurunziza in power – a situation reminiscent of that of Syria’s Assad today. In this sort of impasse, violence will inevitably continue. AU’s proposed peacekeeping mission (MAPROBU) – or a UN police force – if it came to fruition with Burundi’s consent, would serve as leverage to bring actors to the negotiation table and catalyze the resolution of this conflict.