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Relations Between Burundi, Rwanda Deteriorating

Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza is sworn in for a third term at a ceremony in the parliament in Bujumbura, Aug. 20, 2015.

Burundi has been dealing with unrest on and off since April when President Pierre Nkurunziza launched his bid for a third term. But the conflict isn’t just internal. Tensions with neighboring Rwanda have steadily been on the rise.

Relations between Central African neighbors Burundi and Rwanda, rarely warm, have been on the downswing in recent months.

“Before the crisis, the relations were already a bit complicated, but during the crisis, there has been an exchange of accusations between Bujumbura and Kigali, and both capitals consider that the other capital is supportive of its opponents,” said Thierry Vircoulon, Central Africa project director at the International Crisis Group.

The crisis he refers to is Burundi's internal unrest. Opponents of Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza said his bid for reelection in April violated the constitution and the Arusha Agreement that led to the end of Burundi's civil war in 2003, when the cease-fire was signed.

A coup attempt in May and Nkurunziza’s re-election in a poll boycotted by opponents did nothing to calm the situation.

Rwandan President also criticized Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a third term, and accused him of harboring a Rwandan rebel group.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame delivers a speech in Kigali, during the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, April 7, 2014.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame delivers a speech in Kigali, during the commemoration of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, April 7, 2014.

“Kigali accused the Burundian government of basically hosting or relegating some elements of the FDLR (Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda) to be in Burundi, and to move more or less freely between Burundi and Congo. And at the same time, the Burundian government has accused Kigali of supporting its opponents,” said Vircoulon.

Some Rwandans traveling to Burundi have reported arrests and beatings. Earlier this month, Burundi expelled Rwandan diplomat Desire Nyaruhirira, whom it accused of trying to destabilize the country.

Meanwhile, Kagame has been accused by Burundian officials of aiding the coup attempt and backing fighters in northern Burundi -- allegations that Kigali denies.

Steve McDonald is a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.

"Kagame and Nkurunziza -- there is no love lost there. There’s a long history of animosity and Kagame, in my mind is a Tutsi nationalist, and Nkurunziza is Hutu but he tried to take the development in Burundi in a different direction, trying to move beyond sort of the ethnic dimensions in his first years of presidency," he said.

But many analysts, including McDonald, believe the current tensions appear to be political in nature. The hope is that they do not take on an ethnic dimension later, if the crisis continues.

For now, there's concern that Nkurunziza’s re-election could represent a change in how the peace agreement signed in 2000 is viewed.

“Basically, it means that the Arusha Agreement isn’t going to be implemented anymore by the new regime,” said McDonald.

And this disregard for the peace agreement could be one of Burundi’s most worrying developments so far.