Relations between Burundi and Rwanda, Africa’s so-called, false twins, have been icy for the last five years, chilled by unrest in Burundi over the decision by former President Pierre Nkurunziza to vie for a controversial third term.
However, with the recent election of a new resident in Burundi, an opportunity has opened up to turn over a new page in relations between the two neigbours.
In his inaugural address a month ago, President Evariste Ndayishimiye said Burundi was open and willing to strengthen its partnership with the neighboring countries.
More recently, the country’s Foreign Affairs minister announced Burundi would seek to restore relations with the countries it had fallen out with in 2015.
Similarly, Rwanda has also sent out signals it is ready for a rapprochement, notably condoling with the Burundi people over the death of President Nkurunziza and lowering its flag for three days.
It also sent a congratulations message to President Ndayishimiye on his election.
In a recent interview with Jeune Afrique, Rwandan President Paul Kagame declared, “There is history that led to the bad relations between our two sister countries but we are ready to work with President Évariste Ndayishimiye of Burundi to address those issues”.
In the past, the two countries have traded accusations of backing rebels in each other’s territory.
Burundi accuses Rwanda of providing refuge to individuals involved in the 2015 failed coup, supporting armed rebel groups and anti-government media, and of preventing Burundian refugees from returning home.
Rwanda, on the other hand, says Burundi backs the P5 armed group that has been carrying out attacks against Rwanda.
It is a state of affairs that the two countries can hardly afford, especially when facing a global pandemic. The threat posed by Covid-19 calls for countries across the continent to unite against it.
Burundi has changed its approach to the pandemic, thanks to the new President, instituting strong measures to prevent the spread of the virus.
Cross-border cooperation with Rwanda, whose own response to the pandemic has seen it recently become the only country in sub-Saharan Africa whose residents will be allowed to undertake non-essential travel to the EU, would further strengthen this response to the benefit of both countries. Yet such cooperation will not be possible unless relations are normalised.
Further, with economies across the continent beginning to reopen, a friendly relationship between the two would be in the interest of traders on both sides of the border and in the greater East African Community, of which both are members.
So what is holding them back?
Simply put, the leaders of Burundi and Rwanda need to summon the courage to walk the talk – to boldly take advantage of this unique moment to put aside the animosity of the past and mend fences.
A simple phone call between President Ndayishimiye and President Kagame would be a powerful signal to all and sundry that the two are serious about charting a new course for the sake of their more than 23 million citizens.
And once a decision to restore friendship has been made at the highest levels, technical committees can iron out the issues between them.
There is no need for external mediators. As the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed demonstrated in making peace between his country and its decades-old nemesis, Eritrea, all it takes is the courage to take the first step.
As soon as he and Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki agreed to talk, 20 years of hostility dissolved. Ethiopian Airlines immediately started daily flights to Asmara and to this day, technical committees continue to work to resolve the long-standing bilateral issues.
It takes strength and leadership to make peace. And although peacemaking is a marathon rather than a sprint, President Ndayishimiye and President Kagame will have to move quickly to seize the moment.
The window of opportunity may not remain open for long as groups and individuals who profited from the tension between the two countries will have an incentive to shut it down.
The late Charles Chaplin once said, “Nothing is eternal in this world, not even our problems.”
The tensions between Burundi and Rwanda are not eternal. On the contrary, they have lasted too long.
The time has come to put an end to the dark chapter and start a new leaf in the history of the two countries.