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As the new mediator in the Burundi crisis, Nelson Mandela will have to work hard to convince the key players in the strife that they can benefit from peace. Gregory Mthembu-Salter reports
Former president Nelson Mandela's appointment as the new mediator of Burundi is the best news for that divided, strife-torn country in a long time.
The appointment of Mandela, who replaces the late Tanzanian statesman Julius Nyerere, was made at a meeting of regional heads of state in the Tanzanian town of Arusha on Wednesday.
The former president had previously indicated that he was too busy to take on such a task, but appears to have been prevailed upon to change his mind by President Thabo Mbeki.
Observers in the region believe that, for a country whose usual fate is to be ignored until it's too late, Mandela is a man who commands the world's attention. With a personal track record of both reconciling with enemies and working shrewdly towards just, inclusive political settlements, he has the right qualifications for the job of mediating between Burundians. Furthermore, Mandela has the backing of a South African government that has proved itself remarkably creative and adept in its response to the problems of the Great Lakes region.
The Arusha meeting was convened by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, who is the chair of the regional heads of state grouping that has been trying to bring peace to Burundi, to little avail, since 1995. That year they appointed Nyerere as mediator in a multi-party talks process based in Arusha.
A year later, the Burundian army staged a coup, installing former president Pierre Buyoya in place of the remnants of the predominantly Hutu Front pour la Dmocratie au Burundi (Frodebu) government that had been elected in 1993.
Nyerere tried to bring down Buyoya with a regional sanctions initiative which lasted for two-and-a-half years before petering out at the beginning of this year. While helping secure some concessions, sanctions failed to unseat Buyoya, who hung on, initiating a domestic power-sharing arrangement with Frodebu that has split the party into internal and external factions.
Buyoya has been reluctant to concede anything at Arusha, partly because of political dissension that arose in May 1998 when the anti-government militia, led by Lonard Nyangoma, split. The breakaway faction that emerged was headed by Jean-Bosco Ndayikengurukiye, and called itself the National Council for the Defence of Democracy and the Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD).
Nyerere never accepted the CNDD-FDD at Arusha. The CNDD-FDD used terror tactics with terrible humanitarian consequences to try to force its way into the talks process.
The Arusha process finally took a turn for the better in mid-1999 after a successful meeting of most of the key players set up by Nyerere in the Tanzanian capital, Dar es Salaam. Although Ndayikengurukiye was absent, it is believed that he was being kept in touch with developments by his brother, Augustin Nzojibwami, who was at the meeting and is Frodebu's secretary general.
The Arusha process stalled not long after the Dar es Salaam meeting when Nyerere became ill.
Meanwhile the Burundi government began secret direct talks with the CNDD-FDD. But these have made no progress, and Burundi army commanders are muttering that Ndayikengurukiye is being controlled by Democratic Republic of Congo President Laurent Kabila.
Whether or not this is true, it certainly is the case that the CNDD-FDD is deeply involved in the war in Congo, and is working closely with the Rwandan interahamwe against Rwandan, Burundian and Ugandan armed forces. There is also evidence that the CNDD-FDD and the interahamwe are working with the Zimbabwean armed forces in Congo, though this has been denied by Zimbabwe.
According to the Congo's Lusaka Peace Accords, signed in August this year, rebel militia such as the CNDD-FDD and interahamwe are supposed to be disarmed. With the accords faltering the chances of this happening are slim, but nonetheless there are increasing reports of CNDD-FDD and interahamwe units crossing the Congo border into Tanzania and Burundi, possibly with a view to a future attack on Rwanda from the south.
Mandela's most immediate and most difficult task will be to bring the CNDD-FDD into the Burundian peace process, with a view to an immediate ceasefire. However, the CNDD-FDD has previously said it thought South Africa was biased in favour of the Burundian government, and it did not want a South African mediator, so Mandela will have to work particularly hard to convince them of his bona fides.
Burundians certainly need a ceasefire. The government has responded to the latest fighting by herding predominantly Hutu villagers into "regroupment" camps, and tens of thousands of others are fleeing to Tanzania as refugees to escape this dismal fate. Meanwhile, in many areas crops go untended and the meagre harvests uncollected, leaving Burundi with a food crisis that humanitarian agencies are struggling to respond to.