For the first time since 2015, Rwandan and Burundian military officials have met publicly to discuss. This is in a bid to quell the long-term tensions that have affected security, trade and movement along their border.
Delegations of army intelligence officers from both countries met at the Nemba border town Wednesday. Facilitated by Col Leon Mahoungou of the Expanded Joint Verification Mechanism, a regional military framework under the International Conference on the Great Lakes Region (ICGLR).
Relations between Rwanda and Burundi turned sour in 2015 when Rwandan President Paul Kagame blasted his counterpart, Pierre Nkurunziza, for doing little to stop the violence that was sparked by his presidential bid for a third term. Nkurunziza died on June 9, 2020, at the age of 55 and was replaced by Evariste Ndayishimiye.
Movement and trade along the common border of the two countries have been limited since the years prior to 2015.
The meeting follows President Kagame’s first public message to console Burundians on the death of Nkurunziza which was seen as an olive branch to the fresh Ndayishimiye’s government.
The Rwanda Defence Force delegation is led by Brigadier General Vincent Nyakarundi, the head of military intelligence, while his counterpart Col Ernest Musaba leads the Burundi team.
The two sides are also expected to discuss Burundi’s refugee situation after both countries accused each other earlier this month of exploiting refugees as political pawns.
On Thursday, a range of 500 and 700 Burundian refugees in Rwanda are expected to return home.
The United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) told The EastAfrican that majority of the returning refugees are those who issued a petition pleading with President Ndayishimiye to facilitate their safe return.
“In the coming weeks we might observe a growing number of Burundian refugees who voluntarily express the desire to return home,” Elise Villechalane, the UNHCR Rwanda External Relations Officer told The EastAfrican.
Rwanda hosts about 320,000 Burundian refugees as of May 31. This includes those who fled since April 2015, as well as some 37,000 other Burundian refugees who sought asylum prior to April 2015, according to UNHCR figures.
Tensions between the two countries heightened in June, after about 100 gunmen from Burundi attacked a Rwanda Defense Force position in the south, a kilometre inside Rwandan territory.
The Rwandan military said it sought answers from Burundi after four of the unidentified gunmen were killed and the rest retreated to Burundi. The military weapons captured, they said, were branded to belong to the Burundian army.
Burundi in her response said she “cannot be a sanctuary” for armed elements disturbing the security of neighbouring countries.
The meeting between the intelligence officials now serves as an olive branch and as a symbol of intentions by both countries to stop the tensions. Authorities stated a joint statement would be released after the talks.