1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Burundi-Rwanda tensions rise amid border reclosure

Cristina Krippahl | Isaac Kaledzi
January 17, 2024

Relations between Burundi and Rwanda have been frosty for years. The border between the two nations, which reopened two years ago, has been closed again amid renewed tension. Some analysts now fear the spat will prolong.

Evariste Ndayishimiye (left) and Paul Kagame
Presidents Evariste Ndayishimiye of Burundi (left) and Paul Kagame of Rwanda

Burundi has suspended diplomatic ties with Rwanda and unilaterally closed its border. The move came last week, as the government accused Rwanda supporting a rebel group known as RED-Tabara.

But Rwanda denies backing the group, which is believed to be based in volatile eastern Democratic Republic of Congo

RED-Tabara have been attacking Burundi, a nation that designates the rebels as terrorists.  The group claimed responsibility for the December 22 attack on a commune some 20 kilometers from Bujumbura, Burundi's economic capital. RED-Tabara said 10 security officials were killed, while the government said 20 people were killed — most of them civilians.

Rwandan government spokeswoman Yolande Makolo said in a statement that Burundi's decision was unfortunate and violated the East African Community's principles of regional cooperation. 

Tensions that run deep 

"The border between Rwanda and Burundi was closed for a long time — between 2015 and 2022. It was seen as a breakthrough when the border was reopened in 2022. But, the fact that it has been closed again shows that there is an enormous amount of bad blood between the two governments," Phil Clark, a professor of international politics at SOAS University of London, told DW.

"It is going to be at least a matter of months until we see that border opened again."

Tensions between Burundi and Rwanda have historical roots and complex dynamics, often influenced by political, ethnic, and economic factors. It has led to intermittent conflicts and diplomatic challenges in the past.

According to Clark, Burundi has produced no evidence to support its allegation against Rwanda.

"There is a very little evidence to suggest that Rwanda is actually backing the RED-Tabara rebel group in eastern Congo." he said. "That is a group that is made up of entirely of Burundian combatants. Most of them are former members of Burundian military. They have their own problems with the Burundian government and an insurgency against their government for a long time."

A man standing at a burning barricade with a placard
The 2015 bid by the now late Burundi president, Pierre Nkurunziza, to seek a third term triggered violent street protestsImage: Jerome Delay/AP/picture alliance

In 2015, Burundi closed its border with Rwanda during violence that erupted from the disputed re-election of then-President Pierre Nkurunziza. At the time, the authorities accused Rwanda of supporting the protesters and encouraging the perpetrators of a failed coup. Rwandan President Paul Kagame had been critical of Nkurunziza's presidential bid. 

Relations seemed to improve after Burundi elected Evariste Ndayishimiye as its president in 2020, reopened the border in 2022 and trade slowly started to pick up.

But that thaw lasted only until Burundi sent troops to eastern Congo to help fight the M23 rebel group. Congo has repeatedly accused Rwanda of backing the M23, and UN experts have backed up Kinshasa's case. But the government in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, denies involvement with the group. 

The Flip Side: Congo-Rwanda relations

Border closure to impact trade

Analysts say the renewed closure could escalate regional tensions and impact the cross-border movement of people and goods.

Hassan Ndayisenga, a fruit trader, voiced his concerns to DW. "We buy our supplies in Burundi and sell them in Rwanda and Bukavu [in Congo] to support our family. And how are we going to repay our bank loans?"

Clark said the two countries stand to lose a lot from the latest border closure. "Both Burundi and Rwanda would be negatively impacted by this closure. Over the last six or seven years, one of the big complaints from local communities is the damage that has been done by that lack of trade across that border.

"Those who are going to suffer the most from this high level of diplomatic spat are everyday people whose livelihood is going to be hugely disrupted once again as they have been, multiple times in the last decade or so."

A roadsign with the words "Welcome to Rwanda"
An archive picture taken on the Rwanda side of the border with BurundiImage: Stephanie Aglietti/AFP/Getty Images

Resolving a complex dispute

Congolese political analyst Mali Ali told DW that the Burundi-Rwanda tensions could affect the entire Great Lakes region "given the prevailing situation of insecurity in eastern Congo, in which these two countries are cited as stakeholders."

Clark agrees and said that a resolution to the Burundi-Rwanda standoff was unlikely to come soon.

"I think this is going to take quite a while to resolve because it is not just about this immediate issues around RED-Tabara and Burundi blaming Rwanda for that, it is the fact that there is still residue from that seven or eight years of a very difficult relation between these countries that previous period when the border was closed," Clark said.

"There is a longer pattern here and I think shows that this is a very deep conflict and it is unlikely to be resolved anytime soon," Clark added.

People pictured in a camp for dispaced people in Goma
Milions of Congolese civilians have fled fighting in eastern parts of the country where rebel groups are active.Image: Alexis Huguet/AFP

Talk of a protracted dispute is a worry to Rwandan citizens too. "On the diplomatic side of it, it means that the negotiations that they have been having for quite a number of times have failed and it seems like Rwanda is not willing to what Burundi wants," one Kigali resident told DW.

Another said: "The diplomatic situation between Rwanda and Burundi clearly shows that there is a big problem because it has been sometimes when there is restored hope of renewed relations and there has also been the political will between the two countries. So, this renewed hostility resulting into border closure takes us back to square one."

Inside Burundi's former capital: Bujumbura

Okeri Ngutjinazo and Alex Ngarambe contributed to this article

Edited by: Benita van Eyssen

While you're here: Every weekday, we host AfricaLink, a podcast packed with news, politics, culture and more. You can listen and follow AfricaLink wherever you get your podcasts.