Window opens for Burundi and Rwanda relations after frosty spell

Saturday June 13 2020

Burundi refugees.

Burundian refugees at Gashora reception centre in Rwanda on April 28, 2015. President Kagame’s condolence message to Burundians following President Nkurunziza's death is being seen as an olive branch. PHOTO | AFP 

IVAN R. MUGISHA
By IVAN R. MUGISHA
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President Paul Kagame’s condolence message to Burundians following the death of the outgoing President Pierre Nkurunziza marked his first public message to the country since relations between Rwanda and Burundi turned sour in 2015.

The message is being seen as an olive branch to the incoming government after almost five years of a cold war, which started when President Kagame criticised his counterpart for doing little to stop the violence sparked by his presidential bid for a third term.

“On behalf of government and my own behalf, I send our condolences to the government and people of Burundi for the passing of President Nkurunziza. This also goes to the family of the president. God bless,” President Kagame tweeted on Thursday.

The tweet came after Rwanda congratulated Burundi’s president-elect Evariste Ndayishimiye on June 6.

“The government of Rwanda wishes to congratulate the newly elected president of Burundi, Maj-Gen Evariste Ndayishimiye and takes this opportunity to express her willingness to improve the historical relationship that exists between the two brother countries,” the statement from Rwanda’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Co-operation said.

Experts say that leaders from both countries now have a window to pursue better relations and improve trade and crossborder movements, which have been adversely affected both by the tensions and the coronavirus pandemic.

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“President-elect Gen Evariste Ndayishimiye belongs to the ruling party which continued to feud with Rwanda. However, he has the opportunity to set his tone for better diplomatic relations with Rwanda and other neighbours,” Yaan Gwet, a political commentator and lecturer of journalism at the University of Rwanda told The EastAfrican.

“Rwandan leaders also can push for more diplomacy with Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda which have strong ties with Burundi. The bad economic situation in Burundi means the country could be willing to open up for better relations to increase its trade,” he added.

Rwanda has since desisted from commenting on Burundian politics, which experts argue is aimed at not causing tensions with Tanzania — which is not just a strong political ally of Burundi, but also a strong trade ally of Rwanda’s. Kigali maintains it will not take sides in Burundi’s internal politics as long as both countries can co-exist in peace.

However, political experts argue that although Nkurunziza’s likely successor is a ruling party diehard, the desire to create his own legacy could compel him to have better relations with Rwanda. This stems from his unpredictable personality as seen in his opposition to Nkurunziza’s third term in 2015, before his eventual change of heart.

“President Nkurunziza’s successor will most likely continue the political line of the ruling party, which for long has been in open conflict with the government of Rwanda. But there is a chance, as we have seen before in politics, that a new president can develop their own different personality and prefer to pursue or implement reforms that can bring about better relations with neighbours,” Charles Kabwete, Associate Professor of History at the University of Rwanda told The EastAfrican.

But just like his predecessor, Gen Ndayishimiye has accused Rwanda of being the aggressor.

As part of his acceptance speech as the CNDD-FDD flag-bearer in January, Gen Ndayishimiye alleged that Rwanda was behind recent attacks in the country.

“As we have witnessed recent attacks from Rwanda in our territory, we appreciate the move by the government not to retaliate but rather to inform other EAC member states and the international community on these attacks,” he said.

There is currently no existing framework for dialogue between Rwanda and Burundi, and the dialogue facilitator, former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa, resigned from his role last year.

Burundi’s economy has struggled under sanctions imposed by the European Union and the US due to human rights violations following the violence that erupted during and after the 2015 presidential election.

Before Covid-19, the economy was projected to grow 3.7 per cent in 2020 and 4.3 per cent in 2021 on the back of higher coffee exports, a slight increase in public investment, average growth of 6.0 per cent in food production, and a steady, prudent monetary policy.

“The economic situation in the country has to change, and that cannot happen when politically the country is feuding with her immediate neighbour. The president-elect has to use this to his advantage and find a way to encourage regional trade and cross border movement,” Mr Gwet said.

However, inflation is expected to increase to eight per cent from a previous -0.7 per cent according to the April IMF World Economic Outlook, while GDP-to-debt ratio is expected to grow to 69 per cent, up from 63.5 per cent in 2019, and the budget deficit will increase as public spending will grow by 8.3 per cent.

And, currently, Rwanda hosts about 320,000 Burundian refugees as of May 31, who fled since April 2015, as well as some 37,000 other Burundian refugees who sought asylum prior to April 2015, according to UNHCR figures.

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THE ECONOMIC MATRIX

Movement and trade along the common border of the two countries is limited, a far cry from the years prior to 2015.

Although exports from Rwanda to Burundi rose to $5.2 million in the first quarter of 2019 from $1.1 million over the same period in 2018, they are mainly beefed up by re-exports of fuel.

Rwandan manufacturers of cement, beverages and packed foods are yet to resume exporting to Bujumbura while bus services remain suspended.

Rwandan imports from Burundi, mainly foodstuff, declined sharply to below the $1 million mark, and represent only 0.8 per cent of Rwanda’s total imports from the region.

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