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Nkurunziza is barking but Kagame too politically vulnerable to fight back

POLITICS | After 1,300 days, Pierre Nkurunziza finally got some action to his regional politics by calling out his nemesis Paul Kagame across the northern borders of his castle. In the last three years, six months and 20 days following his return to Bujumbura after the May 13, 2015, coup attempt, the Burundian president has hardly ventured out, in words or action.

Picture this; After the coup attempt, it wasn’t until July 20, 2017, a whopping two years and a week, that Nkurunziza mustered the courage to fly out of the country — a trip to Tanzania, where it all started, “to reinforce cooperation between the two countries.”

But on December 5, Nkurunziza mustered a different kind of courage, not to brave tackles on a soccer pitch, or a treacherous bump while riding a bicycle in Bujumbura. Not the courage of facing bees while launching beehives or even of getting dirty to launch potatoes…

Sendo Cleaners

… he mastered the courage to square up and call out Kagame over, basically, everything socially, politically and economically wrong at his own backyard.

In a seven-page letter to President Museveni, the chairman of the East African Community, Nkurunziza accused Rwanda of distabilising Burundi and stopped short of calling Kagame a coup mastermind.

“It is urgent for the EAC to focus on the real problem that is jeopardising peace and security throughout Burundi. It is Rwanda, which is not at its first attempt to distabilise its neighbour Burundi…” he told Museveni, who is also the mediator in the Burundi crisis.

“Rwanda is the only country in the region that is one of the main distabilisers of my country, and therefore, I no longer consider it as a partner country but simply as an enemy of my country,” he added.

Nkurunziza also questioned the rationale for repeated calls that he negotiates with his political enemies.

“If this is the case, and if pressure is put on Burundi to violate its [national] laws by talking with coup perpetrators, what prevents to this day, President Kagame, to negotiate with Interahamwe and other elements that threaten the security and [territorial] integrity of Rwanda?” Nkurunziza asked.

Picking out his prey

More like a skilled pugilist picking out his opponent in the ring by connecting with jabs and crosses as he seeks to land that sucker punch. The Interahamwe are the militia that led the 100-day slaughter during the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi. While Kagame and his government can tolerate a lot of jabs in the eyes, the issue of Interahamwe militia has always been a sensitive one to the Kigali administration.

Nkurunziza no doubts is aware of this. He knows this is how to get into Kagame’s emotions. Until this recent letter to Museveni — a follow up to one he had sent a few days earlier in which he was notifying EAC leaders that he would not attend a summit in Tanzania –, Nkurunziza had retreated into his shells, never uttering political statements on the regional affairs, attending events or travelling.

He was at peace with playing football, riding bicycle and praying… or launching beehives and potato seedlings. The only previously semblance of a direct confrontation with Kigali was by his ruling party in March 2016, accusing Kagame of seeking to export genocide to Burundi.

“The genocide laboratory is in Rwanda because President Kagame, having experimented there, (wants) to export it to Burundi (to) play a minor imperialist,” wrote Pascal Nyabenda, CNDD-NDD party president.

At the time, Rwanda’s foreign minister was a no nonsense blue eyed girl of Kagame, Louise Mushikiwabo. The Iron Lady of Kigali wasted no time in asking Burundi to pick its citizens from refugee camps in Rwanda that it claimed were being trained and armed to fight Nkurunziza’s government.

This much had deflected Nyabende. There was no way authorities in Bujumbura would ask the refugees to return voluntarily without first sorting the mess that got them crossing the northern borders. These people were not in Rwanda for rations and alms, they were there because they wanted to live.

A couple of those this writer met at the UN refugee centre in Kigali at the time told of the reality in Bujumbura. These were elite, some cruising 4×4, whose predicament would not qualify for the rhetoric that the refugees were being held in Rwanda against their will.

So why is Nkurunziza barking now?

It is not as if the Burundian leader has just woken up to the alleged political interference. Nkurunziza has been nonchalant from that May 13, 2015, coup attempt incident when he was in Tanzania for a summit called to discuss the political impasse in his backyard following weeks of protests against his decision to seek another term of office in what the protesters said defiled the constitution.

Maj Gen Godefroid Niyombare had even declared victory and the people had celebrated to near fill when the Nkurunziza balanced his boat from the blue — with the help of an invisible hand that later landed him safely in Bujumbura.

He had then chosen to leave affairs of the region to Kaguta, Kagame and Kenyatta but now Kagame is politically ‘summit-tied.’ Rwanda is preparing to host its biggest ever summit, the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (Chogm) in 2020.

For a country that was never a British colony, Kagame, a tenacious matador who is always on the prowl to earn foreign chips for his country’s socio-economic transformation, somehow convinced the Commonwealth Secretariat about Kigali’s worth in hosting the 52 other nations.

Nkurunziza knows that even the most ruthless dictators cannot at this time engage in political shoves and kicks. He has watched as Kagame released more than 2,000 prisoners, including opposition leader Victoire Ingabire, he has watched as Rwanda’s Judiciary granted bail to a political prisoner and later released her.

Diane Shima Rwigara and her mother Adeline were destined to be acquitted. Anything other than that would have caused a political storm outside Rwanda’s borders. Kagame has one too many critics looking for anything to grab and smash his government with.

For Nkurunziza, the voices of US congressmen and other global leaders calling for unconditional release couldn’t have come at the right time. While Diane and her mother languished in jail for a full year, the critics were not as vocal as they suddenly turned out on realisation that Kagame is wiping his political specks clean ahead of Chogm.

Nkurunziza is probably the last man on earth today who would want to see Kagame host global leaders at such a major summit. Kagame has not given his critics a chance to use the political situation inside Rwanda to attack.

But to the outside, they can look. From South Africa, a couple of voices called on Kigali to negotiate with exiled for exiled former military chief Gen Kayumba Nyamwasa.

Across the border, Nkurunziza sees the perfect moment to dig into the political vulnerability of Kagame for whatever results. On the one hand, Kigali is not in a position to fight back; it can only negotiate. On the other, Kigali can be undermined ahead of Chogm.

The next 12 months will be so long for Kagame and Rwanda as critics strain their binoculars in search of anything to grab and smash. The authorities in Kigali can still respond, but when they do, it will be n total diplomatic manner.

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