Late last month, a group of armed insurgents crossed into Burundi from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and attacked three communes in the north of the country. Responsibility for the campaign was claimed by a new rebel group calling itself the Murundi People’s Front, ‘the Saviours’ (FPM-Abatabazi). The group said it was opposed to the increasingly authoritarian regime of Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza.
Though Burundi has experienced its fair share of rebel raids in recent years, this being the sixth significant group to declare war on Nkurunziza’s government since the controversial elections of 2010, an increasing trend of violence threatens to pull the nation back into full-scale civil conflict.
Fidèle Nzambiyakira, spokesman for the FPM-Abatabazi, emphasised the political nature of the attacks. “We forcefully oppose the Burundi government’s saturation of our rivers with the blood of Burundians” he said. “The time of revolt has come. We are tired of a bloodthirsty government”.
He continued by affirming that their organisation – including its political wing, the Divine Alliance for the Nation (ADN) – covers the entire country, asserting that they “are saviours of the Burundian victims of the poverty that has resulted from the [government’s] corruption”.
Local witnesses described the violence during the attacks. Vyamungu John told Think Africa Press how the rebel battle raged for two days. “Hundreds of gunmen armed to the teeth came from DR Congo, launching the attacks the following day in three communes in western Burundi”, he explained. He added that the assailants did not endanger civilians, but specifically hunted government soldiers, policemen, and members of the Imbonerakure – the ruling CNDD-FDD party’s youth wing, which has become something of an official militia in recent years.
Anselm Nsabimana, governor of Burundi's north-western Cibitoke Province, also confirmed the attack. “Unidentified gunmen entered the town of Buganda, Cibitoke province”, he told reporters, “then went into Murwi from the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo”.
The emergence of violent political dissidents such as FPM-Abatabazi from Burundi’s war-torn neighbour is hardly a new phenomenon. The crisis in the eastern DRC currently dominates the region, with Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, the UN Representative in Burundi declaring it “a real concern for the international community”. But while Rwanda and Uganda have been accused of active involvement in the current conflict, as with previous regional conflicts, Burundi has more generally been an unwilling victim in events, with its weakly-governed areas providing the perfect base for rebels.
The proliferation of armed groups – generally organised along ethnic divisions – in the wider region has made it virtually impossible to control. The devolved nature of the region’s politics makes the extension of sovereignty untenable, and the eastern DRC informally constitutes many sub-states within a state, each under the rule of different local chiefs.
Control of the region’s mineral resources is of primary concern for increasingly localised rulers. According to Okinda Mbaragi, a citizen of eastern DRC, rebel groups can readily gain support from traditional chiefs seeking a private army to protect the mines and other assets under their control. “There will always be motivation for war so long as the eastern Congo suffers from disorder and remains full of minerals”, he explains.
Despite their strategic location beyond Burundi’s borders, speculation regarding the political origins and allegiance of FPM-Abatabazi has been rife. Citing their similarly aligned motivations, some have suggested connections to the numerous downtrodden opposition groups within Burundi.
The Burundian government has previously dismissed such rebel groups as “armed bandits”. Yet government rhetoric surrounding this attack has differed. Gaspard Baratuza, spokesman for the Burundi National Army, recognised that unlike previous raids “there is no sign that indicates these attackers are thieves”.
However, the Alliance of Democrats for Change (ADC-Ikibiri) – a coalition of opposition parties against the CNDD-FDD – condemned the attacks. Their spokesman, Chauvineau Mugwengezo, emphasised that the opposition could never support an armed struggle for power. “The ADC agrees with [FPM-Abatabazi] as far as their reasoning is concerned”, he told Think Africa Press, “but we do not agree with their course of action”.
FPM-Abatabazi themselves have even stressed that there were no Burundian politicians behind his group’s actions.
However, a letter dated October 12 from the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of the Congo addressed to the Chairman of the UN Security Council Committee concerning the crisis in the DRC, accuses former opposition leader Alexis Sinduhije of organising the rebel group. Until 2010, Sindhuje led the opposition party Movement for Solidarity and Democracy, subsequently withdrawing from the election process in protest against alleged fraud.
Whatever their origins, could these seemingly ephemeral rebel groups ever achieve political success beyond crudely destructive raids? And, if so, how destabilising could they prove for Burundi and the region as a whole?
Leonidas Ndayisaba, Professor of Political Science and Director of the Centre for Research and Training for Peace at the University of Burundi, explained: “The CNDD-FDD ruling party overwhelmingly controls all the institutions of the state [while] the rebel groups on the other hand are militarily and materially weak”. For these reasons the eastern DRC is crucial as a “rear base for rebels, whose political claims were not met in their own country”.
He continues: “After the 2010 general elections, a different rebel group declared the start of an armed struggle against the government every six months”. Most of these groups attacked across the DRC border but declared little more than their name and that of their chief.
A report by the International Crisis Group also highlights the weaknesses of new rebel groups suggesting “it is now clear that the Burundian political opposition has been unable to unite all rebel groups”. Most of them claim one or two attacks on policemen or military stations, but soon disappear, doing little more than issuing press releases.
Nzambiyakira of FPM-Abatabazi does not deny this fact, though he asserts that “working together as one rebel group will be soon become reality”. He adds that “the reasons that prevent us from coming together are many”, but that their organisation “is the strongest of the armed groups in Burundi”.
But two factors, according to analyst Ndayisaba, continue to prevent rebel groups from adequately coordinating and supporting their activities. Firstly, there is no valid ideology that can unite all internal and external players in the struggle. Since the mass killings of Hutus by the Tutsi-dominated army in 1972, conflict has largely centred on the Tutsi minority’s confrontation with the Hutu majority – but this scenario appears to be being displaced by a less ethnocentric and more political confrontation.
And secondly, no significant political bodies within or outside Burundi support the rekindling of violence – the memory of a civil war that ended just seven years ago is also still fresh. As a result, the various rebel groups in Burundi find little support from external sources.
The violence caused by groups such as FPM-Abatabazi will always be a symptom of the volatility in this region. But without unity, they can hardly hope to bring about meaningful political change.
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