Jan van Eck: Peace mediator in Burundi

Flag of Burundi
Flag of Burundi (Wikimedia Commons)

Since 1993, Burundi has been in the throes of a civil war between the Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority. In 2000, Burundi’s military leader incorporated members of the opposition Hutu FRODEBU party in his government, beginning the implementation of a transitional constitution. In August of that year, talks bringing together all parties in the Burundian conflict opened in the Tanzanian city of Arusha. Hopes were that Burundi would finally be on the road to reconciliation. The Dutch-born South African Jan van Eck (1943-2009) of Search for Common Ground played a quiet but important role in that process.

Producers: Eric Beauchemin

Broadcast: August 7, 2000


Radio Netherlands, the Dutch International Service, presents “A Good Life”, produced and presented by Ginger da Silva.

Civil strife is tearing apart countries in all parts of the globe. Other countries try to stop the violence using both threats and diplomacy. Whether it’s in southeast Asia, the Middle East, the Balkans or Africa, the United Nations, the European Union and other groups what we loosely refer to as the “international community” are all keen to impose peace, but the mediation process is not a simple one. Today we devote “A Good Life” to the story of one extraordinary man and his experience of mediation. Jan van Eck is a South African, born in the Netherlands. During the apartheid era, he entered South African politics as a member of the National Party. But he eventually joined the African National Congress, becoming an MP for the ANC in the post-apartheid government. Jan van Eck was invited to Burundi to talk about the South African experience, and he ended up staying. He spent the past three years working for an American non-governmental organization, called Search for Common Ground, trying to help mediate a peaceful solution to Burundi’s conflict. Burundi has been in the throes of a civil war between the Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority since 1993. Last Saturday, Burundi military leader Pierre Buyoya, who took power in a coup in 1996, took members of the opposition Hutu FRODEBU party into his government, beginning the implementation of a transitional constitution. This week, talks bringing together all parties in the Burundian conflict opened in the Tanzanian city of Arusha. Hopes are that Burundi is finally on the road to reconciliation. Jan van Eck has played a quiet but important role in that process. He told his story to Eric Beauchemin.

Well, Burundians were having a conflict. It started in ’93 when the democratically elected president was assassinated and an attempted coup took place. They put together a government of sort of national unity, which comprised the majority and the minority, but these were in conflict the whole time. So parliament wasn’t functioning very well, and the United Nations and some NGOs invited foreign parliamentarians to come to Burundi and to share with them their experience of society in conflict. And for that reason, I was invited because of my involvement in South Africa. That is how in June ’95, exactly three years ago, I arrived in Bujumbura for the first time. EB: What did you have to tell the people here in Burundi when you arrived? They asked me to speak about our transition: what were the factors that made us change, what were the obstacles we encountered when we started changing and by sharing the South African experience, that Burundians might learn something from that. The response I had from Burundians from all walks of life who I met at the conference and outside the conference was that they admired South Africa’s transition tremendously. They felt they could learn from that. They wanted to learn more from that, and there was much more they wanted to know that I could pass to them in one week. EB: Initially, as you said, you were invited for one week, but one week has turned into three years. What happened then? Well, you can probably say I fell in love with Burundi. You don’t fall in love with a problem, but you fall in love with a people who seem to be facing a problem similar to the one we had in South Africa. To some extent, it was quite bizarre because I had just been part of a transformation in South Africa, and we had put apartheid South Africa behind us. Why should I again enter a conflict in a country I had never been to and go through the same traumas we went through in South Africa? But to some extent I felt that I knew this kind of terrain. I understood the complications you have when a minority is dominant, and they are fearful. And the majority are frustrated, feel discriminated against and so on. So I felt I could possibly make a contribution. EB: You weren’t actually an official envoy, so how did you get involved and how did you talk to the main players? How did you get them to start talking to each other? Because, it must be said, there were 150,000 people who were killed in 1993 here, and there was blood on the hands both of the Tutsis and the Hutus. So it must have been very, very difficult for you to bring these two parties together. I never came here saying I would like to bring you together. I think when one says that then people will run away. My approach was that although the South African experience can be of use to them, I cannot evaluate what aspects of our transition are useful until I understand the Burundian problem better. So I came back and said to the Burundian role players: I want to understand your conflict first. I want to be able to make a proper diagnosis of the origins of the conflict. What are the real fears of the people? What are the real aspirations? What are the complications in the region as a whole? How does it impact on you? Tell me about your problem. So for the first year, I did virtually nothing but listen. Otherwise, I would not know what are the appropriate aspects of our transition for them and what should I share or not. EB: But they accepted your mediating role, even though it was in an unofficial capacity. They actually wanted it. Well, again, firstly because I didn’t say I was here to mediate. But what seems to have happened is that the minority said to me: well, you are a white South African, so you are part of the white minority in South Africa, so you understand minority fears”. I said: yes, of course I do. The Hutu majority said to me: but, you are a member of the ANC. You represent the ANC in parliament. So that implies that you identify with the aspirations of the majority.” I said: yes, I do. So, they looked at me and said that means you are on both sides. How is that possible? I said: well that is where I stand. I have had this very uncomfortable position my whole life, since I left the National Party, of understanding the fears of minorities, but at the same time understanding that you have to marry those fears and their needs with the needs of the majority. And so to that extent – because so few foreigners adopted that attitude, because most foreigners take sides in Burundi, which is probably the most unhelpful contribution you can make to Burundi, because I as an outsider had not done that, have refused to side with either side – there was an interest, which other outsiders may not have had. My attitude was that as the time develops, as they develop trust in me…if they don’t trust me, I must go home. But if there is trust developed here, then eventually the role players here will make use of me in various ways. And that eventually happened, but on a very low key, very quiet way.

EB: So, you spent the first year basically listening to what people had to say, trying to understand the complexities of the Burundian situation. Burundi, even though it’s a very, very small country – it’s a dot on the map of Africa – it is incredibly complex. How did you actually get the players to start talking to each other because I assume that in the beginning you were talking to them on a one to one basis, listening to what they had to say. But how did you start bringing them together? You know, people in Burundi as elsewhere do understand that you can really solve a conflict only if you have dialogue, if you can talk to one another. Burundians had talked to one another in the past. They had even negotiated. They had even reached agreements. But all the agreements had been broken. So they had lost total faith, and they no longer believed that they could have a positive outcome, a durable solution from talking to one another. So, to a large extent, by using the South African experience, one had to virtually convince people that if the process leading to negotiations is correct, if people built up trust in one another, a minimum amount of trust, only then will it work.

So I looked with them, I looked at why did the previous exercises fail. Why did the conventional government fail? Together we were able to come to the conclusion that it was not because they talked but because they hadn’t talked to one another for long enough, that it had failed because the agreements had been reached too quickly. They had not gone through a personal transformation. EB: Was it a difficult process for them? It was a difficult process because most people had resigned themselves to the fact that war would be forever. They could just not see another way out anymore and specifically because the international community was pressurising them to negotiate a quick solution. They were not willing to do that, having done it before. So the more the international community said in this period: you have to go to Arusha and negotiate a solution now. That means you have to integrate the army. You must integrate your judicial system. You must integrate your civil service now. The more they said that, the more the Burundians said that’s not going to work. So, they were not rejecting the principle of dialogue. They were rejecting the process of dialogue being forced upon them by the international community. To use the word negotiations at the time would scare people off. I saw this and eventually suggested that let’s call it talks or dialogue or negotiation. You choose the word that feel comfortable with. Let’s not force words on people. The act of talking is similar to negotiations. So, from that point onwards, I became involved in many sessions with the Tutsi leadership to go through the concept: how safe is negotiation is the question. Is it safe to do it? Can we negotiate with people who have committed crimes of genocide? During many of the seminars I attended, during many of the meetings I had at home, one could see how people were battling, how they were trying to convince themselves that this was safe. Because bearing in mind that at the time when the conflict was taking place, that most of the killings were ethnically motivated. The rebels would kill Tutsis, and the army would kill Hutus in return. So the impression was quite clear that the rebels that you now have to negotiate with want to kill your people, merely because they belong to one ethnic group. In 1997, in January, there was a very important seminar held in Bujumbura, which was about the national debate. The whole elite from the Tutsi establishment attended, and I was asked to participate and to again speak on South Africa. It led to an incredibly long discussion about how can they negotiate with people who are genocidal? My response to them was: but are all Hutus genocidal? And they said no. But then what percentage? I mentioned 50%, 40%, 30%. And eventually they said, no, only 2% maximum! I said well only 2% according to you of Hutus are genocidal, you have no problem. What about the 98%? So then you can negotiate. There were other people in the meeting who made similar contributions to engage them in a discussion and to remove this fear, which they had built up over years. At the end of five days, the meeting – and again, this was the elite leadership – had moved significantly in favour of negotiations. So from that day onwards, it was crucial to engage specifically the minority, the Tutsi minority, the leadership of that minority, in discussions in public, in private, one to one or mixed groups. But primarily it was to on their own, the Tutsi minority had to become convinced that they would be safe during negotiations. We knew otherwise there would be no peaceful transition.

EB: So you were basically cajoling people, using logic, using charm, using everything at your disposal to go ahead and try to get them talking more and more and more until they reached some type of agreement. It wasn’t just me, but to the extent that I spent so much time here, obviously I was doing more than most other people from outside. But yes, it was mainly that, to restore their faith in their ability to find a solution in a peaceful, negotiated way. Because I understood their fear, coming from South Africa, I was patient. And I think that if I didn’t have that patience, I would not have been able to play any role here whatsoever. There was also a realisation that without the minority agreeing, there can be no negotiated solution. There can be no solution to Burundi. There were many outsiders who felt that a military intervention was necessary, and they even made that public. Those statements stated publicly or privately undermined what one was trying to do because eventually people were saying, well, the international community has its own agenda. They want to impose a solution. My attitude to them was no, you have to find a solution, but that means you have to negotiate and you have to have dialogue. All one did is to help them through the thought process, which is a logical one and to let them come to their own conclusions, when they are ready to say yes, we can now try to do that. EB: At times, did the international community, the ambassadors, some of the foreign ministries make statements or take actions which actually had a very negative impact on the negotiations or the talking process that you were involved in? Yes, I think we had a major problem with the position of the international community towards Burundi. Burundi was firstly not that important to them, although that doesn’t seem so if you look at the amount of attention given to Burundi. The number of international envoys, representatives who were focused on Burundi over the past three are phenomenal. But I think the interest in Burundi was more the result of the international community’s inaction in stopping or preventing the genocide in Rwanda. They mistakenly assumed that the same genocide could happen here as well. Because of that fear of a genocide in Burundi, they adopted an over hasty approach, that solutions had to be found very quickly. The parties have to reach agreements through negotiations very quickly. So the approach was one of we must make these people come to a negotiated agreement if we want to prevent a genocide. That was very unhelpful because it meant that you were not going to approach the problem in a progressive way, in a slow way. Every time the international community would make statements which were always biased – most of the international role players sided against the Tutsi minority. All the time, they were accused of being guilty. They were accused of being intransigent, when in actual fact, people on both sides were guilty. People on both sides were intransigent. Every time this happened and the international community was saying, you must negotiate, that undermined the efforts of myself and other people. So, in many ways, I had to fight a rearguard action the whole time, saying well, that is not what I mean by negotiations. That is not what we did in South Africa. So do not listen to them. That is not negotiations. That is a forced marriage and that cannot work. They did eventually accept negotiations, but at their own pace.

EB: But then, isn’t this often the approach of the international community to try to force two sides to come together, to paper over their differences without really dealing with the root causes of the conflicts? This is quite correct. I think it’s one of the biggest problems that international role players, specifically those from powerful countries, do not have enough time to take small countries like Burundi, with massive problems, major conflicts, to take them seriously. The only way you can permanently solve or resolve a problem is if you really spend a lot of time. We need far more analysis of the conflicts, of Africa, and I’m specifically focusing on Africa. We need to understand why is there a conflict between Hutu and Tutsi. Nobody is really trying very hard to understand that, and to say what is the best way whereby that can be solved. But most importantly, it is the people themselves who have to be empowered to find a solution. The days of Africa being the recipient of imposed solutions is over. We cannot allow that any longer. What the international community can do is to empower people, to enable them to find solutions. But they must find solutions which they are happy with. Nobody who has any pride can be happy with a solution that is imposed by anybody from outside. In South Africa, we worked out our own solution, and we thank the international community for its role in helping us, but we did it ourselves, and we are proud of that. And we did it even without foreign mediators. I believe in Burundi what they’ve started to do now, which is a slow process, a process of trust building, firstly between the internal parties as a step one, and then moving towards the external process, that’s step two. This gradual type of process eventually leading to a negotiated agreement is the only way to find an agreement that will be durable.

EB: Are you also that independent facilitators, if I can call you that, can play a crucial role whether it be in this conflict in Burundi or elsewhere in Africa or even for example between the Israelis and the Palestinians? Do you think that there’s always a role for somebody who’s independent from a non-governmental organisation like yourself? The main handicap which official government representatives have is that they represent their government. That means that they have to implement the government agenda. The asset that they have is that they do have clout. If they represent a strong government, then obviously they are important role players, and they have the ability to apply pressure, which is sometimes very useful. What they do not have is the flexibility which non-government actors have. They also don’t have the amount of time that non-governmental actors have. There’s a growing body of opinion that feels that what we call Track 1 – the official diplomats – that their role, which is very important can be very successfully complimented by unofficial diplomats, unofficial facilitators who do not have any power behind them, with whom the actors for example in Burundi can talk or not talk. They don’t have to talk to you. They don’t have to talk to me. But they do. Whereas if a formal envoy arrives in Burundi, they have to talk to him. Otherwise they alienate the country he represents. That doesn’t guarantee a very honest dialogue. So I think we have to look at the international level a system whereby people who are non-governmental can be used in tandem with the official, governmental representatives.

EB: Jan van Eck, this was actually a fairly historic day for Burundi today because a partnership was signed between the two main political parties – the FRODEBU, which is a mainly Hutu party, and the UPRONA, which is a mainly Tutsi party – a power-sharing agreement you can say. Just how significant is this agreement? This is a major development in Burundi. It is unique because anybody who knows the Burundians would not have thought this possible a mere year or two years ago. The fact that you have the government, which came to power through a coup, and the party that won the elections of ’93 now having formed a partnership EB: which was actually the party that was overthrown in the coup Exactly. So to have a situation where the government who overthrew FRODEBU now forming a partnership with that very government that it overthrew is unique. It took a major strategic decision on the part of both sides to do this. And when the president of the country and the president of the National Assembly signed the document, there was great joy.

The big work starts now. The baby has learned how to crawl. It must now learn to walk. And it’s going to be a long process. They will have to be careful that the trust in one another is not undermined. Many problems can crop up. But I believe that they have built a very solid foundation internally. This internal process is important because the Burundians learned they could develop trust in one another. Enemies could learn to develop trust. That was the lesson of this internal process. They are not convinced that they can do the same with the exiled groups who they consider more extreme. So now they will have to go through the same process with the external parties. They will have to discover that yes, it is possible or it’s not possible. We don’t know the outcome. But they will need a lot of time for that because if we again rush the process, you’ll find the parties eventually may sign before they’ve reached the kind of trust they need and which they developed in Burundi over the period of nearly a year. To expect that at Arusha you can reach an agreement in less than a year would be very dangerous. EB: When Buyoya took over power in this country, the international community turned its back on Burundi. The region imposed economic sanctions, an economic embargo that had severe effects. They wanted to forget about this country, and they didn’t think there was any solution. Yet, today’s agreement shows that if you keep on talking, if you keep on trying, you can achieve something. Yes, one understands that if there’s a military coup in a country that was democratic that obviously there will be international sanctions. The decision to apply a complete economic blockade on Burundi, I think was totally counterproductive. It made relationships here more tense. It made the minority government dig its heels in. And it also resulted in many international players leaving. It would have been far better to have selective sanctions that people understood, that these sanctions could be lifted depending on what they do. If they committed themselves to negotiate as the president did the day he was sworn in, that he would talk to the rebels. The sanctions were imposed after he had committed himself to that. Nobody understood that. So if you want to use sanctions, you must again make sure that people understand why you are doing it. They should be changed, lifted or increased depending on what people do. But I think sanctions are not a solution to the causes of a conflict. You are again merely addressing the symptoms, and there is far too much talk in the international community that when a country or a government is doing something wrong, immediately they talk about applying sanctions. You have to change people’s minds. Sanctions don’t do that on their own. So what would have been better would be if they had applied selective sanctions, the same sanctions had been lifted from time to time or reduced, and at the same time had helped the Burundians to start a process of dialogue. Many of us made an attempt to convince international role players to support a national dialogue, a national debate in Burundi after the coup. The government wanted a national debate. We who were involved at the NGO level wanted it, but the international governments refused. They said, no, they have to go straight and negotiate. So again it was a case of you have to change in a rush. You have to immediately end the coup, not understanding why the coup took place. There were reasons to those who executed the coup that were valid. Those who executed the coup thought that they had very good reasons for doing so. And all those reasons were just ignored. So again, it is looking for simplistic solutions to very, very deep problems. EB: You said that a baby is now crawling. Are you going to continue to watch this baby crawl or are you going to say I’ve done my share and I will move on to other things now? No, as in South Africa, the most dangerous period in transition is when parties agree to the transition. The fact that there is now an agreement signed internally means that those who oppose the transition will go out of their way to sabotage it. To that extent, the Burundian transition has not been completed, and I could not personally because of my interest in this Burundian situation, having seen the progress made, I could not ever leave now, even if it was only for personal selfish reasons of eventually being able to see the baby start walking. It has been to me one of the most rewarding experiences of my life to realise that African conflicts are not permanent. They are not unreasonable. It’s not true that Africans like to kill one another as many people believe. Having seen that there is a process whereby people can be taken through the process of negotiations, I would like to stay involved in that, and I would like to see eventually when this succeeds that other countries in Africa could learn from Burundi’s experience, especially in the Great Lakes region. There are many countries in our region here who have major conflict, where there is no dialogue taking place. That is Rwanda, even Uganda and Congo Kinshasa. And maybe Burundi’s process again can be of use to other countries in Africa. So it would seem as though my time in Burundi is not over yet, no.

Mediator Jan van Eck works for Search for Common Ground. He told his story to Eric Beauchemin in Bujumbura for this special edition of A Good Life. My technician today has been Frank Meijer. My thanks to producer Janet Anderson. I’m Ginger da Silva. I’ll be back next week. Till then, you stay well.