WASHINGTON—Since February, Burundi has been beset by a serious institutional crisis. Notwithstanding dramatic progress that had been made in healing Burundi's ethnic divide following years of conflict and war, major divisions within and between the country's principal political parties and a lack of productive dialogue had produced a six-month political paralysis.

To respond to this crisis, and at the request of President Pierre Nkurunziza and other Burundian leaders, the Woodrow Wilson Center's Africa Program and the Burundi Leadership Training Program (BLTP) organized a "Key Leaders Retreat," from September 9-12, 2007, which brought together the country's major political actors in a workshop designed to reestablish trust, to strengthen communications and negotiations skills, and to create the conditions for multi-party collaborative decision-making.

The workshop was the latest in a long-term leadership capacity building project organized by the Wilson Center's Africa Program through the BLTP, now an independent Burundian NGO that had been initially founded by the Wilson Center and is today led by Fabien Nsengimana. Since 2003, the BLTP has been working with a broad cross-section of key Burundian leaders to support the country's democratic transition. The workshop was facilitated by Elizabeth McClintock of CMPartners, who leads the BLTP training team, and Aurelien Colson, associate director of ESSEC-IRENE in Paris which partners with the Wilson Center on this project. Howard Wolpe, director of the Wilson Center's Africa Program, was the convener and assisted in the training.

The 4-day workshop-retreat was held in Gitega, in eastern Burundi. Remarkably, it gathered all four of Burundi's living former presidents (pictured above), the top leaders of all of the principal parties, the head of the army, the head of the national police, the head of the demobilization and reintegration commission, and key civil society leaders.

While the retreat's primary focus was to provide effective communication and negotiation tools, it also offered participants a space to meet informally and the opportunity to rebuild their personal and political relationships. The leaders engaged in various simulation exercises designed to deepen their understanding of the value of collaborative action, and to provide insight into the sources of tension and conflict within Burundi. One exercise, an all-day simulation in which participants find themselves in a society characterized by dramatic inequality and deep regional divisions, drives home the importance of inclusive political processes and the maintenance of national cohesion.

"The last phase [of the simulation] truly felt like real life," commented a member of the Burundian parliament. "I felt emotions from the national breakdown and the lack of cohesion. For a while, it almost felt like it was really happening…this exercise has a lot of value, even for countries outside of the region."

Howard Wolpe agreed, and said that "the workshop exceeded everyone's expectations in restoring the trust of key leaders, repairing their relationships, and renewing a commitment to collaborative decision-making."

At the close of the four-day workshop, Burundian journalists conducted interviews with some of the participants, which were then broadcast on a continuous loop on Burundian radio. And on September 16, three of the four former presidents of the republic took part in a radio program, during which they publicly connected the country's current political situation to the workshop that had just concluded. The joint participation of the four former presidents, adversaries in earlier years, in the Key Leaders retreat was regarded by many Burundians as a historic occasion.

The crowning achievement of the workshop, however, occurred two weeks later, when President Nkurunziza announced an end to the political stalemate.

The BLTP was created in 2003 to support the Wilson Center's work in Burundi. It became a registered NGO last year and has expanded its program -- conducting its own capacity building and leadership training, along with the work it does in partnership with the Wilson Center. The Wilson Center's leadership training initiative was launched with the support of the World Bank and USAID, with supplementary support from the European Commission. In recent
years a large part of the BLTP effort has been focused, at the request of the Burundian government, on the training of the high commands of the country's army and national police force. This work has been underwritten by the British Department for International Development (DfID).

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars is the living, national memorial to President Wilson established by Congress in 1968 and headquartered in Washington, D.C. The Center establishes and maintains a neutral forum for free, open, and informed dialogue. It is a nonpartisan institution, supported by public and private funds and engaged in the study of national and world affairs.