By Eddy-Claude Nininahazwe
Diplomatic relations between Burundi and Rwanda deteriorated in 2014, when the two countries accused each other of harboring elements hostile to one another. However, when Rwandan President Paul Kagame received a Burundian delegation in January 2022, a new chapter began.
The delegation was sent by Burundian President Evariste Ndayishimiye and headed by the Minister of East African Community Activities, Youth, and Sports Ambassador Ezéchiel Nibigira. “The purpose of the visit was to promote bilateral relations and strengthen the historical ties between the two countries,” Nibigira said. After their meeting with Kagame, the government of Rwanda, through its spokesperson Alain Mukurarinda, said that exchanges had focused on strengthening relations between Rwanda and Burundi, and that leaders had agreed that dialogue is the most viable way of solving problems.
On July 1, 2021, Burundi celebrated the 59th anniversary of its independence. Rwanda sent Prime Minister Edourad Ngirente to represent the country at the celebration. Speaking on behalf of Kagame, Ngirente spoke of Rwanda’s desire to normalize relations with Burundi. “The time has come for Burundi and Rwanda to build on the solid foundations of our historical and cultural ties in order to achieve prosperity and sustainable development. I am convinced that we are all ready to work for the consolidation and promotion of the existing relations of friendship and cooperation for the benefit of our two peoples.”
Burundi’s Ndayishimiye responded, “We are ready to open a new chapter and bury the hatchet between Burundi and Rwanda and we are ready to work with Rwanda.”
He noted the significance of Ngirente’s visit. “For Burundians, your visit here is like a miracle… . This visit has a meaning, a significance. There is a book that we Rwandans and Burundians had spent days writing, and it’s time to open that book, read it together, close it, and then open a new one together. Tell President Paul Kagame that we appreciated this visit and that it gives us hope.”
Signs are good that the two countries want to normalize relations. Rwandan historian Gérard Karamutsa believes it is imperative that the countries overcome current political divisions. “The two countries have an interest in working together, given their common history of having been colonized by Belgium. They are brother countries.”
Dr. Guillaume Ndayikengurutse, lecturer in political science and international relations at the University of Burundi, agrees on the importance of Ngirente’s visit to Burundi, but indicates a visit between the two heads of state is still needed. “These visits are necessary when there is a longtime conflict… . The meeting between the two heads of State is the last stage of negotiations and for adopting major decisions to normalize relations,” he said.
The 2020 elections, which brought Evariste Ndayishimye to power, were something of a turning point. In July 2021, Rwandan authorities handed over to Burundian officials 19 Burundian rebels captured in September 2020 on Rwandan soil. The rebels were from the resistance movement Red Tabara. Three months later, Burundi turned over to Rwanda 11 members of the National Front for Liberation of Rwanda, who had been captured by the Burundian army in a forest bordering the two countries.
In October 2021, a meeting between two delegations led by governors of border provinces took place at the Burundi-Rwanda border of Ruhwa, in western Burundi. The two delegations noted an improvement in the security situation on the common border and spoke of a wish for trade to resume. In the same month, the governors of the eastern and southern provinces of Rwanda and those of Kirundo and Muyinga in northeastern Burundi met at the Gasenyi-Nemba border post, Kirundo province. Their exchanges also focused on the security situation on their shared borders.
Speaking to the Rwandan Parliament in February 2022, Rwandan President Paul Kagame announced that the normalization of relations with Burundi seemed to be heading in the right direction. “The problems between Rwanda and Burundi, including insecurity along the common border, will soon be eliminated, so that the people of our two countries can move freely across borders,” he said. Meanwhile the border separating the two countries remains closed.