Burundi: The Reintegration of People Affected by the Conflict and the EAC

AU Flags
By Sascha Nlabu

Deputy Secretary General of the East African Community (EAC) Beatrice Kiraso recently stated something rather obvious: “Instability in one country means instability for others. We should not allow this as it will undermine our integration efforts”. The EAC hopes those efforts will turn it into the EU of East Africa. It is also obvious then that the time is right for those words to be followed by actions in order to transform hope into reality. Deep-rooted competitive thinking amongst East African nations has to be replaced with true cooperation in order to ensure a prosperous and stable East African region that attracts both foreign investment and tourism.

However, tiny and landlocked Burundi, which is bordered by Tanzania, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, only officially emerged from 12 years of civil war in 2006. This makes it a well-placed candidate to disturb the integration efforts. Burundi has consistently shown itself to be crucial to East Africa’s security, serving as a crossroads for the illegal arms trade and a floodgate for refugees. Even though much has been achieved since the Arusha Peace Accords in 2000, the cease-fire agreements in 2003 and the transformation of the last armed group, the Front National de Libération (FNL), into a legitimate political party in 2009, there is still much to be done to definitively consolidate the recently acquired peace in Burundi.

The sound of gunshots after sunset is a familiar sound to the inhabitants of Bujumbura and its environs. The International Crisis Group is talking of “political banditry” while various other sources such as Radio France International and local newspapers talk of a “new rebellion” gathering momentum. While it is true that there are reported clashes between governmental forces and armed groups, whether or not this constitutes a new rebellion must be assessed with prudence.

However, this is not to deny that Burundi reamins a rather unstable country; politically motivated violence occurs regularly, the economic situation is catastrophic, issues of transitional justice haven’t been properly addressed and the major opposition party, the FNL, led by the charismatic Agathon Rwasa, returned underground once more in 2010. 

Bearing in mind this tense situation, which might transform itself once again into open armed conflict, socio-economic reintegration of those people affected by the conflict is a crucial and urgent step in order to proceed toward stability in Burundi and more generally in East Africa.

The UN estimates that post-civil conflict Burundi is host to more than half a million returnees, more than 150,000 internally displaced persons and around 40,000 ex-combatants, along with many other vulnerable groups. These people are in desperate need of gaining a foothold in post-conflict Burundian society. If reintegration policies fail to deliver and if the political situation degenerates, many of those people will be amongst the first new recruits of future armed groups and widespread violence might resurface.

However, socio-economic reintegration of people most affected by the crisis is a difficult issue in Burundi. On the one hand, the competencies of the people to be reintegrated are mainly within the domain of agriculture, as Burundi itself is a vast farmland. As of one of the world’s poorest countries, Burundi has few other well-developed economic sectors. As a result, reintegration policies should obviously focus on agricultural activities.

On the other hand, this presents a problem. Burundi has a land mass of 25,680 sq km and slightly more than eight million habitants, ninety percent of whom are already engaged in agricultural activities. It is therefore one of the world’s most densely populated countries. Land is not only an extremely scarce, almost unavailable resource, but conflicts over land ownership are erupting in all provinces. Consequently, reintegration policies in Burundi cannot rely solely on agriculture, although there seem to be few other options.

Considering the relative urgency in Burundi and the risk of seeing the situation degenerate, it is time for the EAC to step up to the challenge and to help stabilise Burundi, which is crucial for East Africa.

In fact, the EAC, which aspires to become an economic and political union, put in place the Common Market Protocol in July 2010. This should clearly have a positive impact on the process of stabilisation in Burundi as East Africans now enjoy the free movement of goods, persons, labour, capital, services and the right of establishment and residence within the EAC, at least to a certain extent. However, the free movement of labour is only applied to highly qualified persons – a distinctly small portion of the population. More importantly, the idea to include the possibility of land ownership in the Common Market Protocol, which would offer Burundi a glimmer of hope for quicker stabilisation, was harshly rejected by Tanzania and to a lesser degree also by Kenya. Deep-rooted fears of having their land occupied by strangers are as old as tribalism itself and they are still predominant in many African countries.

This kind of narrow thinking has to be overcome. The possibility of land ownership by Burundians within the EAC would directly benefit the reintegration policies in Burundi. Having in mind the well-known link between economic opportunities and social and political stability, as well as the link between poverty and conflict, it is apparent that in the long run the possibility for Burundians to access land within the greater EAC would lessen the competitive pressure on land within Burundi. This should significantly contribute to the success of reintegration policies, which would also stabilise the tense situation in the country and reduce the risk of more violence.

Consequently, the EAC needs to prioritise the stabilisation of Burundi at the expense of old-fashioned and narrow thinking for the sake of regional integration. This is in its interest. If the EAC fails in these efforts, Burundi, the heart of Africa, could become the heart of the downfall of the remarkable integration efforts in East Africa. The EAC needs to prove its leadership skills and show that it is serious about its vision to become the EU of Africa.


Sascha Nlabu is a Swiss national and is currently based in Burundi working for the United Nations Development Programme. He holds a Master’s in International Studies and Diplomacy from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. His research interests include conflict prevention, peace building and good governance.


22 June 2011


Photo Credit: FILE