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Uganda feels the strain of the Burundi crisis

South Sudan refugees arrive in Uganda 2014 UNHCR
For the past three years, the war raging across Uganda’s northern border in South Sudan has been pushing its refugee-hosting abilities to breaking point. But it is now the simmering violence to the south in Burundi that could tip the situation over the edge. 

“We are overwhelmed and overstretched,” Musa Ecweru, Uganda’s state minister for relief, disaster preparedness and refugees, told IRIN. “We have to meet the dire needs of these people… [but] we already have high numbers of refugees in the country.”

Uganda is sheltering 173,747 South Sudanese who have fled the war being waged between supporters of the country’s President Salva Kiir and Vice President Riek Machar, and now 18,427 Burundian refugees have crossed its southern border, according to the UN’s refugee agency, UNHCR.

Overall, Uganda offers protection and safety to more than half a million people who have fled their homes and is the third largest refugee-hosting country in Africa after Ethiopia and Kenya.

Burundi’s direct neighbours – Tanzania and Rwanda – have been hardest hit by its deepening political crisis, taking in 175,000 and 75,000 refugees respectively.

The UN estimates 400 people have died in Burundi’s political violence since April, the vast majority slain in opposition strongholds of the capital, Bujumbura.

The fear in places like Kampala is that if the Burundian situation degenerates further or collapses into all-out civil war, it will be the entire region that suffers the consequences.

“We are definitely facing a huge humanitarian crisis,” Reverien Mfizi, a doctoral candidate in political science at State University of New York at Buffalo, told IRIN. “So far, more than 200,000 people have fled the country and are living in precarious conditions in refugee camps. Obviously, the failure to find a negotiated agreement will likely increase the risk of civil war.”

Far apart

The ingredients are certainly there for worse to come. 

President Pierre Nkurunziza’s representatives refused to attend peace negotiations last week in Tanzania with leaders of Burundi’s umbrella opposition group, CNARED.

See: Briefing: What next for the Burundi peace process

His government accuses CNARED of involvement in a failed coup attempt in May, which was designed to stop him from achieving a third term. Nkurunziza won re-election easily in July, after the opposition, which claims he had already served the maximum two terms allowed by the constitution, boycotted the polls.

Nkurunziza’s ruling party accuses CNARED of recruiting refugees in neigbouring countries to wage war on Bujumbura – pointing the finger specifically at Rwanda as offering direct support. A report last month by Refugees International seems to substantiate this claim.

According to Ecweru, more than 20 former high-ranking Burundian officials who have fled Nkurunziza’s government are also in Uganda.

Burundi has not only rejected dialogue but also the deployment of an African Union intervention force, MAPROBU, aimed at supporting a political settlement.

Regional diplomats are trying to pick a way through the deadlock.

Regional pressure grows

AU Commission Chair Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma has been in talks with Bujumbura to enable the deployment of MAPROBU. In a potentially telling move, Tanzania, a long-standing supporter of the government, has agreed to provide 5,000 troops for the peacekeeping force – the first East African country to do so.

“The AU has suggested that a Pan Africanist force should be sent to Burundi to help in the situation,” Uganda’s Defence Minister Chrispus Kiyonga told reporters on Friday. “People are dying. There are people who are going outside Burundi, fleeing as refugees, both elites and poor people.

“That situation needs to be stabilised and [the country] needs to be brought back to order. So it’s in that spirit that we of the AU think we should come to the assistance of our brothers and sisters in Burundi.”

Kiyonga is trying to facilitate the faltering regional peace process on behalf of official mediator Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who has been criticised for his lack of engagement.

The way forward?

“It’s important to bring together all Burundi’s political actors and put together a plan on how the country can get out of this crisis,” said Mfizi. “The first issue should be to end violence and hammer out a political agreement that could help the country move forward.”

An African diplomat based in Addis Ababa told IRIN that CNARED’s fixation that Nkurunziza must stand down ignores the fact that he won an election in July – however tainted. The best-case scenario is that an agreement is struck on a government of national unity with a guarantee from Nkurunziza that he will not seek another term, the diplomat said.

“He [Nkurunziza] understands the current situation is only going to end in disaster for all and wants to find a way out, but he needs to save face and protect some of his interests,” Steve McDonald, global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, told IRIN. 

“He knows that a solution has to include other key leaders, but the only way these avenues can be explored is through private intense conversations facilitated by a trusted party. Museveni is not that party.”

Museveni is seen as distracted by Uganda’s upcoming election on 18 February, when he will be standing for the fifth time. Bujumbura also regards him as unsympathetic.

“The AU needs to step in, stop coddling Museveni's feelings, and lead this effort, possibly with a trusted party like former [Tanzanian] President [Jakaya] Kikwete or perhaps a senior South African figure, all individuals who Nkurunziza trusts,” suggested McDonald.

“The only way to engage Nkurunziza constructively is in private, exploring with him ways in which to address the crisis,” he added. 

A key meeting will be the AU’s summit at the end of the month. Given Bujumbura’s veto, any MAPROBU deployment will need agreement from two thirds of the AU heads of state, as well as a UN Security Council resolution.

What could help soften Nkurunziza’s position is if his accusations against Rwanda recruiting and training refugees are taken seriously. “Those allegations should be investigated,” said Mfizi.

Kiyonga told reporters last week that the AU would examine the evidence: “The truth will be found out and a solution [agreed] in case there is a problem,” he said.

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