Nervously Watching the DRC Elections from Burundi

(Burundi)  Just across the river from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Friday evening was calm—the end of a sunny day in a string of rainy ones. Except for one thing: as the result of DRC’s election are announced, there is an acute understanding that what happens there may have a dramatic impact on whether this tiny country of just over 8 million continues down a path toward long-sought peace—or whether insecurity creeps back into daily life.

For the last decade, Burundi has fought hard to consolidate the peace that finally ended a civil war that began back in 1993 with a mass slaughter that foreshadowed the Rwandan genocide next door. In 2000, the country’s main rebel groups signed the Arusha accords that integrated their forces into one army and brought fighting leaders into civilian life. The country held elections in 2005 and again in 2010; on Thursday, the UN head of mission to Burundi told the Security Council that incredible progress toward peace had been made.

And yet there are signs here that the calm of recent years is starting to slip. Over the past several months, the political opposition appears to have moved underground—where they were during a decade of civil war. Former rebels may be behind a string of attacks on civilians perpetrated by what the government has dubbed “armed bandits.” Meanwhile, civil society organizations say that 300 members of the opposition have been assassinated in the last half-year; they suspect the government. “Fragile” is analysts’ favorite word to describe the mood.

This is where Congo fits in. Over the past two decades, insurrections in Burundi, Rwanda, and the DRC have intermingled, worked together, and become intrinsically linked. The Eastern Congo remains perhaps the single easiest place for nascent rebellions to grow: It is largely lawless, flush with arms, and booming from a war economy built on minerals, guns, and even daily goods like sugar and coffee. If the DRC is itself destabilized, the power dynamics across the region will shift as new players scramble to fill lucrative holes. And if anyone here in Burundi was inclined to head back to the battlefields, they would almost certainly organize in Congo.

“Everyone talks about Rwanda and Congo, and no one ever talks about Burundi,” notes Kris Berwout, coordinator of a network of 46 European NGOs working in Burundi. “It’s the orphan of the region. But all the local situations in those three countries are so interlinked, that it’s very difficult to find solutions for one country if it’s not part
of regional search [for peace.]”

As nightfall arrives in Congo, it won’t only be the Congolese who are kept up worrying. Just a stone’s throw away, there’s also much at stake.