Background Briefing

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The Risk of More War


In the days after the Gatumba massacre, the chief of staff of the Burundian army and the president and several other leading authorities of Rwandathreatened war on the Congo, imputing at least negligence and even deliberate participation in the massacre to some in the Congolese government and army. Under heavy diplomatic pressure, they took no immediate action to carry out these threats—and the president of Burundi even backed away from the threat soon after—the congruence in their positions suggested a new relationship.97            

Before 1994, Burundi and Rwanda were closely linked, in part because of their similar demographic structure, and ethnically-related killings or repression in one country often provoked reactions in the other. After the Rwandan genocide and the massive departure of Rwandans to Congo, Rwanda became more intimately involved with Congo, first in its attempts to counter a resurgence of strength by the former Rwandan army and Interahamwe, subsequently in building political and economic ties with its rich but weak neighbor.  Although Burundi collaborated in these wars in the Congo, it left more ambitious designs to Rwanda and Uganda and focused its attention on combating Burundian rebel groups with bases on Congolese soil. With this more narrow military focus, Burundi did not participate in the large-scale illegaleconomic exploitation or the larger political ambitions of its northern neighbors. For several years, Rwandan soldiers have moved in and out of Burundi, sometimes offering support to the Burundian army in its battles with rebels, sometimes pursuing Rwandan rebels operating in Burundi. The Gatumba massacre may mark a new stage of cooperation between Rwandan and Burundian military, suggesting that the two-sided contest between Rwanda and Congo may become a three-sided conflict, with the risk of spreading war throughout the region.

The closer cooperation that appears to be developing among some government leaders of Burundi, Rwanda, and parts of RCD-Goma parallels, responds to, and is likely to reinforce the apparently growing cooperation among FNL and Rwandan rebel forces detailed above.

Within Congo and Burundi

RCD-Goma joined Rwanda and Burundi in menacing Congo, with its president (also one of the vice-presidents of the Congo government) declaring that the transition was not working and that the participation of his party was suspended. General Nkunda, who with Mutebutsi led the attack on Bukavu, declared he was ready to go to combat again. Had the menace being carried out, the war would have been, as in the past, both within Congo and from outside across its borders.

Like its chief backer, Rwanda, RCD-Goma heeded the diplomatic voices counseling calm and its members returned to rejoin the government. The fundamental problems among the actors directing the transition remain, however. Should RCD-Goma decide once again that its interests would be served by confrontation with the transitional government, it will almost certainly use the horror of Gatumba to rally its own followers and to attempt to sway international opinion.

Within Burundi political and military leaders dissatisfied with ethnically-based arrangements for the future political system sought to use the killing of the Banyamulenge to buttress their demands for a larger share of power. In a letter to the president of Burundi, Tutsi-dominated parties cite the massacre as proof that a “genocidal trend” is “still a reality” in Burundi, with the necessary implication that they require special guarantees in such a situation. Even at the funeral of the victims, they tried to turn the occasion into a political demonstration, unfurling their signs over the coffins and flowers.

The bitterness and intransigence shown by Tutsi leaders and those supporting them has not yet led to war, but it has already elicited parallel reactions among Hutu and other related ethnic groups. 

[97] Agence France Presse“L’armée burundaise ‘n’exclut pas une offensive’ contre la RD Congo,” August 17, 2004.

<<previous  |  index  |  next>>September 2004