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New Burundi President Faces Tough Task - 2003-05-10

A new president assumed power in the central African country of Burundi last week, and his job will not be an easy one. Among other things, he has to bring an end to a decade of civil war in his country.

President Domitien Ndayizeye faces a daunting task. Ethnic tensions in Burundi have been simmering for many years. But for the last 10, the tensions have boiled over into outright war. Rebels from President Ndayizeye's majority Hutu ethnic group are fighting to overthrow the powerful Tutsi minority to end their hold on power.

About 200,000 people have already died in the war and more people are killed every day in fighting between the Tutsi army and the Hutu rebels. There have, however, been some steps toward peace.

Under pressure from other African leaders, among them former South African president Nelson Mandela, Burundi is moving toward peace and democratic elections.

In line with an accord signed in Arusha, Tanzania, in 2000, Tutsi President Pierre Buyoya handed over power to President Ndayizeye on May 1st. The new president's job is to steer Burundi toward democratic elections in 18 months. After which, he will leave office.

Jan van Eck, a South African analyst with long experience on Burundi, says President Ndayizeye needs to persuade the rebels to lay down their arms if Burundians are to believe in the peace process. "Obviously, the fact that the war continues has put a damper on the inauguration of a new president, especially a Hutu president. And obviously the chances of the new government really succeeding will be very negatively affected by whether the war continues or not," he says.

In the hope of winning over the rebels, President Ndayizeye's first move was to appoint members of two Hutu rebel factions to his government.

The two men come from the smaller faction of the Forces for the Defense of Democracy, or FDD, and the smaller faction of the National Liberation Forces, or FNL. Both movements signed cease-fire agreements with the government in October.

The appointments are aimed at encouraging the two main factions of the FDD and FNL, who continue to fight government forces in Burundi, to get involved in the peace process.

Joel Frushone, a policy analyst with the U.S. Committee for Refugees in Washington, believes the appointments are a wise move. "That's a good step. When the other FDD and FNL leaders are saying No, we are not part of the Arusha accord. We don't recognize the new president," he says. "That was their tone all the way up to May 1st. And now they are starting to say, Why aren't we included on some of these processes?"

The next step is to recruit more Hutus into the army. The majority of Burundians deeply distrust the Tutsi-dominated army, which they accuse of massacring Hutu civilians.

One of the provisions of the Arusha peace accord calls for an equal number of soldiers from each ethnic group. Mr. Frushone says it could be difficult for President Ndayizeye to carry out this part of the accord because he does not have control over the military leaders, most of whom are Tutsi. "This is a military that some people say run on their own and they don't take orders from the president. So Ndayizeye is going to have to broker his peace with just brand new relationships that he has to forge," he says.

Mr. Van Eck, the analyst from South Africa, has been involved in informal talks with the rebels, to try to bring them to the negotiating table.

He says the rebels do not think the concessions agreed to in the Arusha peace accord of 2000, such as integration of the army, are good enough. Also, the rebels say they do not feel obligated to accept an agreement that they were not even involved in. Mr. van Eck says the rebels now want the government to negotiate with them afresh. "Those are not their compromises. Those are not their agreements. So, in a way, there is going to have to be an acknowledgment," he says. "Sit down and let's hear what you would like to change and let us as government see what we can accommodate and what not. But that's not really been done. The attitude has to change. We have to say, do we want peace in Burundi or not? And if we want peace in Burundi, we will have to do much more than now to bring the rebels in as a partner."

But despite the massive task ahead, the fact that a Tutsi president has peacefully handed over power to a Hutu is it itself a huge symbolic step forward.

Kitty McKinsey, a spokeswoman for the United Nations Refugee Agency in Nairobi, says Burundian refugees living in neighboring countries are reacting positively to the transition. Each week, hundreds are returning home from Tanzania. "We've seen that even before the transition took place a lot of refugees were expressing their confidence in Burundi by going home from Tanzania, especially to the northern part of the country," she says. "So it's clear that the refugees want to go home. We hope that now the situation will be more stable, that peace will spread throughout more of the country and that we will be able to facilitate their going home, to help them go home in safety and dignity."

Though it is far too early to say that years of tensions between Hutu and Tutsi are nearing an end in Burundi, analysts say there does seem to be a new found commitment to solving the country's problems peacefully. But that commitment might not last.

The analysts point out that if President Ndayizeye does not succeed in winning over the rebels, a rift is likely to develop between him and the powerful Tutsi community, paralyzing his government.