Onanga: A New Burundi in the Making

“I have come to discover a country that is of unique beauty, a country of people of extraordinary resilience and courage, upon which history has shared a very heavy cast, full of hatred, full of crime, and untold misery,” said Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, for the past five months the Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the United Nations Office in Burundi (BNUB). He spoke at an IPI SRSG Series event held on January 25, 2013.

For most of the twentieth century, Burundi underwent major social and political unrest that took countless lives and destabilized the country. The UN Office in Burundi began in January 2011 to support the Burundian government in strengthening their independence and legal frameworks, promoting national dialogue, fighting impunity and protecting human rights. Mr. Onanga assumed the post as head of the UN office in Bujumbura in August last year.

Talking at IPI, Mr. Onanga outlined several important aspects of political and social developments currently taking place in the country.

Since the signing of the power-sharing Arusha Accords in 2000, Burundi has become a much different place than it was before. Having gone through such a violent history, Mr. Onanga said that the country, “decided quite courageously to come to some difficult agreements to share power, along ethnical lines and political ones.”

Burundi is only second to Rwanda in terms of population density, with major ethnic divisions between the Hutus and Tutsis. But as Mr. Onanga pointed out, some experts would say there are no serious differences between the two groups, as the issue has become over-politicized.

Since 2000, the political leadership in the Burundian government has agreed to divide up power and leadership positions in key institutions. The Hutus, which are the major ethnic group, hold 60% of cabinet positions while Tutsis hold 40%. In the army, it’s split 50-50.

Even with the progress made, Mr. Onanga highlighted the fact that Burundi is still paying the price of the 2010 election boycotts, in which the opposition parties argued that the elections were unfair.

He asserted that with the absence of the opposition in the parliament, the current government has moved a number of draft laws which, if they were passed, would lead to a “further shrinking of the political space, for the opposition, for civil society and for the media.” The main party has grown to be the dominant force in the country.

“The danger for them would be to go to the elections alone, because if we were to see again a boycott of the kind that happened in 2010, then it would really strike a big blow to Burundi’s young political experience,” he said.

In trying to tackle this issue, a BNUB-organized workshop is planned for the end of February, which will be attended by members of the oppositions and the current government.

“Beyond accessing the power and controlling the power, the opposition in many countries, and what can be considered young democracies, have the responsibility to ensure that they are there, and that the voice of the voiceless, not represented by the majority, are heard,” Mr. Onanga said.

He mentioned that having the UN there on the ground is definitely an asset in the process to strengthen Burundi’s democratic experience.

Through dialogue, there are positive signs that the country is progressively moving away from ethnic politics. Taking the example of the UPRONA Party, which has largely been considered a strong representative of the Tutsi minority, Mr. Onanga pointed out that it has had a Hutu president since the signing of the Arusha Accords.

But while Burundi has made significant strides, there’s still much to be done, he said.

“Many challenges remain, and one of them is definitely to advance their own commitment to abide by the rule of law, to promote human rights, to end impunity, and the big issue that remains is the setting of transitional justice mechanisms,” Mr. Onanga said.

Underscoring the importance of both human rights and good governance in Burundi, Mr. Onanga called on the international community, including the UN Security Council members, to be Burundi’s advocates.

The event was chaired by Warren Hoge, IPI Senior Advisor for External Relations.

Interview with Parfait Onanga-Anyanga, SRSG and Head of the UN Office in Burundi (BNUB)

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