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The resolution of Burundi’s protracted civil war was a milestone in African politics, highlighting regional leaders’ ability and determination to organise a peace settlement based on human rights. Yet the gains made nearly two decades ago, involving strong South African leadership, have all but vanished.

Cyril Ramaphosa is sworn in as the new South Africa president at the parliament in Cape Town, South Africa, February 15, 2018. © 2018 Reuters

After the announcement in 2015 by Pierre Nkurunziza –  the country’s president since 2005 – of his intention to run for a controversial third term, the government cracked down on opposition with widespread violence. The crisis deepened earlier this year, with widespread intimidation of the opposition during the campaign for a constitutional referendum to allow the president to stay in power until 2034.

Strong regional leadership, especially from South Africa, is desperately needed to stem the abuse and get the country back on track.

South Africa, together with Tanzania, played a critical role in broking the 2000 Arusha Accords, which helped to end a deadly conflict, in which an estimated 300 000 people were killed in largely ethnically motivated attacks. Then deputy president Thabo Mbeki led South Africa’s mediation efforts. The intervention in Burundi was an African solution to an African problem.

The accords created conditions to end the human rights abuses that defined much of the conflict. The agreement opened the way for the Constitution adopted five years later and became the cornerstone of a consensus-led system in which ethnic Hutu and Tutsi governed together. It also set the stage for a decade of relatively steady progress toward peace, reconciliation, economic development, a burgeoning civil society and an independent media.

Yet since 2010, the ruling party, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy, has chipped away at key tenets of the accords. The opposition boycotted elections that year after a crackdown on human rights. During the election period, political opponents faced surveillance, arrest, torture and even death. After 2010, the only checks on the government came from the media and civil society, which were more and more at risk.

In late April 2015, demonstrations broke out in response to Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a third term. The ruling party contended that his first term didn’t count because Parliament had appointed him. The police responded to the protests with excessive force. Violence escalated in the second half of 2015, with targeted killings of high-profile government and opposition figures, deadly police search operations, abuses by members of Imbonerakure, the ruling party’s youth league, and attacks by armed opposition groups against the security forces and the ruling party.

The government now seems to regard activists, journalists, and political opponents as enemies. Many have fled into exile following persistent threats and intimidation.

In 2016, some abuses became more covert, with increasing abductions and unexplained deaths. Since early last year, security forces and Imbonerakure members have killed, raped, beaten, detained, threatened and harassed scores of opponents. Nearly 400 000 people have fled the country since 2015.

The new Constitution, adopted in the referendum earlier this month, does more than enable Nkurunziza to stay on. It is designed to strengthen the ruling party’s grip, reducing the majority needed to adopt legislation and setting the scene for dismantling the ethnic balances embedded in the accords. The guarantees that the Tutsi minority hold some government posts will now be up for discussion with an increasingly authoritarian government. The ruling party’s control of state institutions, the absence of space for a genuine opposition and the rampant impunity for state agents clearly threaten the system defined by the accords.

But the core tenets of the accords can still be salvaged –  if regional leaders step up and take a strong stance.

President Cyril Ramaphosa should put South Africa at the forefront in helping to restore the gains of the Arusha process and to prevent a further deadly escalation of the crisis in Burundi before elections in 2020. He should work with other African leaders and indicate clearly that there will be real consequences unless Burundi’s leaders call a halt to state repression. African leaders should make full use of the African Union, including its powers to address crimes against humanity.

South Africa justified its leadership role during the Arusha negotiations by citing its moral obligations to support peace efforts on the continent after so many African countries contributed to the struggle against apartheid. With further large-scale human rights abuses on the horizon, and the need for strong regional engagement greater than ever, Ramaphosa should recommit to holding Burundi to the Arusha agreement.

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