BURUNDI’S former president Pierre Buyoya, currently the African Union (AU) special representative for Mali, did not take the podium to speak at the AU summit in Johannesburg on June 14 and 15.
But he did have something to say.
As delegates mulled around in their dark suits waiting for a meeting of the AU’s influential peace and security council to start in the Sandton Convention Centre, Buyoya found himself standing just a few steps from where his country’s new foreign minister Alain Nyamitwe was speaking.
Nyamitwe was vehemently defending President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to go ahead with elections, despite the violence raging in the tiny Great Lakes country — a crisis situation linked to the presidential third-term bid that was supposed to top the agenda of the summit.
“I don’t agree with this business,” Buyoya muttered under his breath.
He is no longer the boss, so he doesn’t have scores of bodyguards and briefcase carriers like the other heads of state around. Asked, however, whether he is prepared to comment on the crisis in his country, Buyoya said: “I am the first signatory of the Arusha Agreement [that brought peace to Burundi], so I have a responsibility to speak out.
“If we continue like this, we’re going back to civil war,” said Buyoya, who ruled Burundi twice, from 1987 to 1993 and from 1996 to 2003.
The Burundi crisis over Nkurunziza’s third-term bid and other conflict matters were nearly eclipsed at the summit by the debacle around Sudan’s president Omar al-Bashir, who attended the summit despite the International Criminal Court’s arrest warrant against him.
The high court in Pretoria ordered the South African government to prevent Bashir from leaving the country, but he left without being arrested. It was a side-show the summit could have done without.
Discussions around issues like Burundi, South Sudan, Libya and other continental hotspots did continue, however. It is one of the core missions of the AU to intervene to stop crises on the continent and officials agree that the 15-member council is where AU members can make the most impact.
Burundi and South Sudan both topped the agenda at the meeting of the council on Saturday, chaired by Nigeria’s newly-elected President Muhammadu Buhari.
AU Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma in her opening statement at the meeting lamented the descent into crisis, given that Burundi experienced more than 10 years of peace after signing the Arusha Agreement, which ended the civil war over a decade ago.
“We all breathed a sigh of relief, but unfortunately it did not last. We are deeply concerned about the stalemate in the political process as well as the humanitarian situation. Hundreds of women and children have fled the country,” Dlamini-Zuma said, encapsulating a more forceful regional position.
Dlamini-Zuma said all the parties in Burundi must now sit down and find common ground on how to have peaceful and free elections. This was easier said than done, however.
To its credit, the AU has been outspoken on the situation in Burundi ever since Nkurunziza announced his intentions, and has emphasised its role as a guarantor of the Arusha agreement.
It decided at the summit to dispatch military observers to monitor the disarmament of militias in Burundi and called for dialogue between the stakeholders to start within a week of the summit.
Under the old Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which the AU supplanted, such a stance would have been untenable, and seen as interference in a member state’s internal affairs.
But in a sign of how much ground it has covered, a standby force to intervene in regional crises is now being prepared.
Another major issue on the agenda of the summit was the war in South Sudan that has left hundreds of thousands of people displaced.
For months, the countries in the region have tried to get the two warring parties — the government of President Salva Kiir and his rival, former president Riek Machar — to but several other such deals have foundered.
The mediation by the sub-regional Intergovernmental Authority on Development (Igad) has struggled to produce the desired results, partly due to the vested interests of some of its members in the conflict.
At the end of last year the AU decided to name a high-level panel of heads of state, to try and find a solution to the protracted crisis that has devastated Africa’s youngest state.
The committee met for the first time on the margins of the summit.
It is made up of key regional players South Africa, Nigeria, Rwanda, Chad and Algeria, giving it much-needed political heft.
There is some scepticism about the impact that the new panel will have, reinforced by South Sudan’s insistence that it only recognises the Igad process.
“Other leaders can come up with ideas, but Igad is leading the mediation,” South Sudan’s foreign minister Barnaba Marial Benjamin told reporters.
The other burning issue of the summit — the threat of terrorism on the continent — was driven home on the last day of the summit by a dramatic series of bomb attacks in N’Djamena, Chad, headquarters of the AU’s multinational joint task force against the extremist Boko Haram.
The force was set up at the last AU summit in Addis Ababa in January this year and the new headquarters inaugurated by the AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Smail Chergui last month.
The bomb blasts, which left more than 30 people dead, were a reminder that the scourge of terrorism by groups like Boko Haram and Al-Shabab in Somalia are making life unbearable for many African citizens, who live in constant fear of their lives in the areas where these groups operate.
“Terrorism is the greatest threat of this century,” Chergui told reporters at a press conference.
He said the good news was that the AU was making concrete progress in dealing with terrorism. A summit will soon be held on the issue, following the anti-terrorism summit held in September last year in Nairobi. “We have a plan to deal with all terrorist groups,” said Chergui.
Countries affected by Boko Haram are also now putting their money where their mouth is to fund the AU mandated force, which is made up of countries from the Lake Chad Basin Commission: Nigeria, Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Benin.
According to Chergui, Nigeria announced at the summit that it is putting $100-million towards the effort and the Economic Community of East African States will contribute $50-million.
The AU summit was in fact supposed to be held in N’Djamena, but was moved to South Africa, reportedly due to lack of funds and the terror threat. Chad has been at the forefront of the fight against the Nigerian group Boko Haram and is also involved in fighting Islamic extremist groups as part of a United Nations peace force in northern Mali.
According to some reports, the perpetrators of the N’Djamena attacks came from Libya — another country high on the agenda of the AU.
The chaos that ensued after Muammar Gaddafi’s demise has caused huge instability across the Sahel due to the proliferation of weapons and the fact that Libya has become a safe haven for terrorist groups, including those from the Islamic State.
New talks in Libya
On the margins of the summit, a meeting took place between concerned nations and the UN mediator in Libya, Bernardino Leon. It was agreed that a new round of talks should be convened between the two factions in Libya, who both claim control of the country.
Requests by the recognised Libyan government in Tobruk that the arms embargo against Libya be partially lifted in order for it to be able to fight back against the Islamists who control the capital Tripoli, were rejected by the meeting.
“We’re here to make peace, not to get them to escalate the conflict,” said one European official after the meeting.
The flurry around conflict resolution suggests an AU that is more engaged, following decades of criticism, as it seeks to command respect as the region’s growth compass.
It is a mission of stability the AU is keen to cement, all too keenly aware of the cost of interminable conflict to its growth vision, which includes the Tripartite Free Trade Area.