In an important step toward ending a seven-year civil war in Central Africa, most parties to peace talks on Burundi signed an agreement Monday under pressure from former South African President Nelson Mandela and President Clinton.
Clinton was one of 20 foreign leaders who joined the peace conference for Burundi, a country that borders Rwanda and has roughly the same volatile ethnic mix. But even when Air Force One arrived early Monday evening, it was uncertain whether a majority of the parties would agree to Mandela’s plan, according to National Security Advisor Samuel R. “Sandy” Berger.
It was only after good cop-bad cop speeches by Clinton and Mandela that it became clear 14 of the 19 groups involved--all except the smaller of the ethnic Tutsi parties--would sign.
Although the holdouts could stymie the peace process, Berger said the agreement is an “important step forward in an ongoing process to establish a secure peace in Burundi.”
President Mandela “castigating the lesser angels of their nature, and President Clinton appealing to the better angels of their nature, I think altogether, caused a critical mass of parties to agree to sign,” he said.
Like Rwanda, where more than 800,000 people were massacred in a 1994 genocide, Burundi has a large Hutu majority and a Tutsi minority that dominates most institutions. Burundi has suffered almost continuous discord since independence in 1962 and barely avoided a disaster similar to Rwanda’s. About 80% of Burundi’s people are Hutus.
The smaller Tutsi parties often are among the most radical and could be capable of ruining any peace deal reached by more moderate factions.
Both Mandela and Clinton made impassioned speeches urging holdouts to embrace the agreement, which envisions an ethnically balanced transitional government that would lead the way to democratic elections in three years. The agreement would also create an army divided equally between the ethnic groups. Tutsis have argued that the agreement would strip them of power.
Mandela’s words were laced with disappointment in the participants, but Clinton’s were sugarcoated with encouragement.
“Peacemaking requires courage and vision,” Clinton said. “That you have come this far suggests that you have the courage and vision to finish the job. And we pray that you will.”
Clinton stressed that the job of reaching a peace accord in Burundi will become only harder in the future, after even more people die. The conflict between the predominantly Tutsi army and Hutu rebels already has claimed 200,000 lives, mostly civilians.
“If you let this moment slip away, it will dig the well of bitterness deeper,” Clinton said.
In an acrid address, Mandela expressed his aggravation with the groups that refused to sign, blaming them for allowing the continuation of the slaughter of innocent people.
“The small parties are those who have sabotaged this agreement,” he said, referring to the smaller of the Tutsi parties. He accused them of “promoting their own interests and not those of their people in Burundi.”
Clinton’s special envoy to the talks, Howard Wolpe, said the deadline imposed by Mandela and the presence of so many foreign leaders had a big impact on the group.
“In the last 48 hours, enormous progress was made,” Wolpe said.
Those who refused to sign indicated that they might change their minds if a few conditions are met. Primarily, they are concerned about the plans for a cease-fire, which would require the agreement of armed Hutu rebel groups, which are not participating in the talks. Another main grievance of the holdouts is that the Hutu majority will have more representation in the transitional government than the Tutsi minority, Wolpe said.
The parties have given themselves 30 days to resolve the questions of who will lead the transitional government and how the cease-fire will be achieved.
Some participants stressed the intractability of these problems.
Under the current draft, “it would mean that there would be only Hutu presidents of Burundi for all time, and the Tutsis will not agree to it,” said Gabriel Toyi, an ethnic Hutu who is a member of a majority Tutsi party, Uprona. “It is a great problem.”
Clinton pledged the support of the United States and the world community once a peace deal is signed to help demobilize combatants, return refugees to their homes, and meet the needs of displaced children and orphans.
Clinton acknowledged that he is an outsider but offered advice from his eight years of trying to help forge peace in places such as Northern Ireland, the Middle East and the Balkans. He told participants that compromise is never easy and stressed that delay will only cause Burundi to fall further behind the rest of the world. He also praised Mandela for assuming the trying job of mediator in December after 27 years in prison in the struggle for freedom and five years as president of post-apartheid South Africa.
Before the public session, Clinton met with Mandela, Burundi’s president, Pierre Buyoya, and regional heads of state.
On his third day in Africa, Clinton received a hero’s welcome in Arusha, where thousands of people lined the streets and cheered him, waving American flags and branches to welcome him. He praised the role that Tanzania is playing in the peace process, calling it the Geneva of Africa.
Other members of the group facilitating the talks agreed that, by setting the deadline and inviting the heads of state to Arusha, Mandela accelerated progress toward an accord, even if he did not succeed in persuading all parties to sign.
But some participants suggested that the disagreements remained so great that outside pressure could not create the will for peace.
“If people have already taken decisions, it is difficult for them to change it in the last minute because we have a power person like President Clinton arrive,” said Etienne Karatasi, head of the Palipehutu, a Hutu party that is involved in the talks.
Karatasi signed the agreement and agreed with Clinton and Mandela about the need to turn it into something in which the people of Burundi can believe.
“It is very important to show the people that this is the first step in a foundation that will build democracy in Burundi,” Karatasi said.
Since December, Mandela has been trying to push the adversaries to end the civil war that has ravaged the Central African nation since October 1993, when Tutsi paratroops assassinated Burundi’s first democratically elected president, a Hutu.
White House officials stressed that the administration was eager to do its part to shore up the tremendously difficult peace process and had not counted on an agreement being ready to sign.
During his visit, Clinton took the opportunity to praise Tanzania, the host of the peace talks, as a “place of peace” in a region where warfare and dictatorship prevail.
If Tanzania strikes a chord with Americans, it is likely because of the U.S. Embassy bombing in Dar es Salaam, the capital, two years ago.
“I believe the terrorists went after Tanzania, Kenya and the United States precisely because we are dedicated to tolerance, understanding and cooperation across frontiers and lines of division,” said Clinton, who later arrived in Cairo for talks with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. The two leaders sat down for a meeting today at Cairo airport.