Canada and the rest of the world need to “stay the course with patience and more humility” when looking at Burundi and other African nations that are “building their own yardsticks” for what constitutes peace and stability after decades of civil war, a United Nations official here has said.
Youssef Mahmoud, head of the UN integrated office in Burundi (BINUB), said that while, Burundi continues to face huge challenges as it recovers from the lingering effects of a 12-year, ethnic-based civil war and numerous crises before that, it has nonetheless made progress. He was briefing a Canadian Anglican delegation that visited Burundi Feb. 12 to 15.
“If you see where they’ve come from, there’s a lot that’s been done. It’s all relative. There’s a governance crisis, yes. But the fact that they manage to peacefully resolve the crisis is something. People can get discouraged but there is a new regime and there is no war,” said Mr. Mahmoud. (Mr. Mahmoud was appointed head of BINUB in 2007, following the conclusion of the mandate of the UN operation in Burundi in December 2006.)
“People laugh when they hear that the president here is still alive and that that’s a good thing. But if you know the history of this country, the fact that the president is still alive; that’s progress,” he said, when asked to assess the socio-economic political situation in Burundi. “If they come to the precipice and don’t fall, that’s progress.”
Mr. Mahmoud added: “It’s easy to say, ‘let’s empower Burundians and the sub-regions of Africa.'” But many Africans want us to judge them on their efforts. Of course, there’s corruption, and human rights abuses can’t be ignored. But we should also hold other countries who are geopolitically important to our nations to the same standards that we do Burundi and other countries of Africa.”
Mr. Mahmoud told a delegation headed by Archbishop Fred Hiltz, primate of the Anglican Church of Canada and president of the Primates’ World Relief and Development Fund (PWRDF) board of directors, that, like any post-conflict society, Burundi faces challenges related to security, specifically the transition from political violence to political process.
A UN Security Council report last December acknowledged that “while Burundi has made commendable advances in key areas of peace consolidation, the country continues to face serious challenges, primarily from the stalled implementation of the 2006 Comprehensive Ceasefire Agreement” with the rebel opposition group Forces Nationales de Liberation (FNL). The disarming of civilians and former rebels and the delay in releasing child soldiers also remain huge impediments to peace and stability.
“People want to see a basic difference in their lives. They think that the end of war equals peace and development,” Mr. Mahmoud said, citing “peace dividends” as another huge challenge facing the government of Pierre Nkurunziza. A former Hutu rebel leader, Mr. Nkurunziza was nominated president after his group, Forces for the Defence of Democracy (FDD), won the elections to the senate and the national assembly in 2005. It was the Burundians’ first parliamentary elections since the civil war in 1993.
Reconciliation and good governance also remain key issues to be addressed by the Burundian government, said Mr. Mahmoud. His office recently conducted a survey asking Burundians the question, “What does peace mean to you?”
The most common response was simple, yet it poignantly captured the most basic expectations from a people who’ve had to endure the lingering effects of decades of Hutu-Tutsi conflict historically inflamed by Belgian colonial rule: “Peace is if I have one meal a day and a roof with no leak.”
Others said peace meant being able “to relate to the other without fear, to be able to go to the fields or the school or to go home without being robbed, raped, or killed.”
Mr. Mahmoud acknowledged that “it’s not easy to find a balance between quick results and the long-term nature of peace” but he expressed confidence that Burundians are working hard to achieve stability in their land. “People are tired of violence,” he said.
Churches and civil society institutions have played a big role in helping bring about change, he said. “Churches can help build capacities for peace no matter how broken it is,” he said. Christians constitute 67 per cent of Burundi’s 8.9 million population (Roman Catholics account for 62 per cent, and Protestants, including Anglicans, 5 per cent). The rest include ancestral believers (23 per cent) and Muslims (10 per cent).
Mr. Mahmoud, who is also the UN secretary general’s deputy special representative for Burundi, explained that BINUB’s role is “to support government and the people in devising strategies to deal” with the challenges to peace and stability.
BINUB is currently helping the government develop a “code of conduct for civic education” as Burundi prepares for the next elections in 2010. The goal is to create an environment conducive to holding free, honest and peaceful elections.
(Read more stories about the Canadian Anglican delegation’s trip to Burundi in the upcoming issues of the Anglican Journal.)