Tensions escalate between Burundi and Rwanda

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Burundi – Rwanda border. Screenshot from Tv5monde YouTube channel

Just over one year after land borders finally reopened between Burundi and Rwanda in October 2022 after a seven-year border closure, diplomatic relations between the two East African countries are once again deteriorating.

In May 2015, Burundi‘s late president, Pierre Nkurunziza (2005–2020), was targeted in a coup attempt led by General Godefroid Niyombare. The general criticized Nkurunziza’s pursuit of a third term in office, deeming it unconstitutional. Although the coup was unsuccessful, Burundi leveled accusations against Rwanda, claiming it supported Niyombare’s efforts — a charge that Kigali vehemently denied. This incident triggered a crisis between the two nations, culminating in the closure of their 360-kilometer shared border.

Seven years on, Burundi reopened its border with Rwanda, which has been led by President Paul Kagame since 2000. This rapprochement was facilitated by the election of Evariste Ndayishimiye as Burundi’s president in 2020, marking a significant shift in bilateral relations between the two states.

Relations notably improved. On July 1, 2021, Rwandan Prime Minister Édouard Ngirente attended the 59th independence anniversary celebrations in Bujumbura, marking a significant step towards reconciliation. Furthermore, on February 4, 2023, President Kagame participated in the East African Community Summit held in Burundi, showcasing a further thaw in relations.

Borders close again

However, the honeymoon period between the two countries only lasted a year. On January 11, 2024, Burundi once again indefinitely sealed its border with Rwanda.

Burundian officials have accused Rwanda of backing RED-Tabara, the rebel group known as the Resistance for Rule of Law in Burundi, in an assault near the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on December 22, 2023. The attack, resulting in twenty fatalities, including women and children, drew widespread condemnation from the African Union.

This armed group emerged from the unrest following the 2015 electoral crisis, as segments of the populace expressed their opposition to Nkurunziza’s reign.

In an interview in the French newspaper Le Monde regarding the reasons behind the recent closure of the borders, Martin Niteretse, the Burundian Home Secretary, remarked:

Nous avons fermé nos frontières avec le Rwanda, celui qui va tenter d’y aller ne passera pas. La décision a été prise. Après avoir constaté que nous avions un mauvais voisin, Paul Kagame (…), nous avons arrêté toute relation avec lui jusqu’à ce qu’il revienne à de meilleurs sentiments. Le voisin rwandais héberge les criminels qui nuisent aux Burundais. Les ressortissants rwandais, nous n’en voulons pas.

Our borders with Rwanda have been sealed, and any attempts to cross into the territory will be thwarted. This stance reflects our firm decision. Upon recognising the adverse nature of our neighbour, Paul Kagamé, we’ve chosen to sever all ties with him until a change in his approach is observed. Rwanda has been identified as a sanctuary for individuals causing harm to Burundian citizens, a situation we aim to distance ourselves from by refusing entry to Rwandan nationals.

For its part, Kigali also accuses Burundi of supporting Rwandan rebels operating on its territory.

Several observers have suggested that the friction between the countries stems from their involvement in an external dispute in the Democratic Republic of Congo, where M23 rebels clashed with the country’s Armed Forces (FARDC). Notably, on March 5, 2023, Burundi stepped into the fray in the DRC, aiming to combat the M23 insurgents, who, according to United Nations reports, receive backing from Rwanda.

The impact on the region

While Burundi’s closure of its border with Rwanda might appear as a diplomatic gesture, it carries broader consequences. Rwandan nationals who were living in Burundi have been deported back to their home country. Burundian officials, however, have declined to disclose the total count of those expelled.

In response, the Kigali administration is cautioning its citizens against traveling to Burundi while simultaneously offering assurances to Burundian residents in Rwanda regarding their safety. According to an SOS Media Burundi report, Alain Mukularinda, the deputy spokesperson for the Rwandan government, was quoted as saying:

En ce qui concerne les Burundais qui sont ici au Rwanda… Continuez à vaquer à vos activités quotidiennes, ne soyez nullement inquiétés, rien ne vous arrivera suite à la décision des autorités burundaises de fermer les frontières avec le Rwanda.

For Burundian nationals living in Rwanda… Carry on with your daily routines and do not worry. Despite Burundi’s recent decision to shut its borders with Rwanda, your safety is not compromised.

Beyond these decisions and official declarations, the economic operations of traders in both countries face significant disruptions. Speaking to Jimbere, a magazine in Burundi, one merchant reflected on the situation:

On venait de passer plus d’une année à se réjouir d’une reprise des échanges commerciaux entre nos deux pays, mais voilà tout d’un coup, le mauvais épisode recommence. (…) malheureusement, je ne parviens pas maintenant à vendre ne fut ce que la moitié de mes marchandises.

For over a year, we had been very happy trade with Rwanda had started again, only for the difficulties to resurface suddenly. (…) Now, unfortunately, selling even half of my stock has become impossible.

The media outlet Yaga Burundi offered its own analysis via X (formerly Twitter):

In economic terms, this closure will have a negative impact on cross-border trade and the transport sector.

Rwandan merchants who requested the border #Ruhwa to get their fruit and vegetable supplies at #Rugombo’s market in @CibitokeProv, now find their hands are…

pic.twitter.com/aJpqHCdqVO

— Yaga Burundi (@YBurundi) January 15, 2024

This border closure will negatively impact both countries’ economic sectors, though Burundi has more to lose — particularly its informal workers and the cross-border small traders.

André Nikwigize, an economist hailing from Burundi and former principal economic adviser to the United Nations Secretary-General, as well as the founder of the NGO Partners for Peace and Prosperity, views the border closure as a politically motivated decision with potentially devastating economic repercussions. He wrote on X:

#burundi. The closure of the border with Rwanda has considerable economic consequences. Between 2018 and 2020, Burundi lost USD 5.1 millons on its exchanges with Rwanda. Have Burundian authorities assessed the economic impact of this new blockade?

— André Nikwigize (@AndreNikwigize1) January 12, 2024

He questions whether there might be alternative, less categorical ways to solve the political issues at the heart of the conflict between the two countries.

Moreover, many Burundians regularly cross the border into Rwanda for health care treatments.

Paradoxically, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) finds itself significantly affected by the escalating crisis between Burundi and Rwanda. Given the challenges associated with land travel directly between the DRC and Rwanda, Congolese traders and travelers are now compelled to take a detour through Rwanda before reaching their intended destinations. However, the current situation impedes such movements, as this video from Voice of America shows:

The recurrent diplomatic and security crises are exacting a heavy toll on the peaceful coexistence of the 27 million inhabitants in the region. Particularly affected are those individuals whose livelihoods are predominantly reliant on cross-border trade.

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