AU 'to move 5,000 troops' into Burundi, seeks Nkurunziza consent but could go in anyway

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It would be the first time much-criticised bloc would invoke the right to move into a member state on a continent where it often operates as a club.

THE African Union has agreed to send troops to stop violence in Burundi, a senior official said Friday, after a meeting where the 54-member bloc warned they would not allow “another genocide” to take place.

The AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) took a decision yesterday to send troops to protect civilians,” senior AU official Bonaventure Cakpo Guebegde told news agency AFP.

“These troops will be under the banner of the East African Standby force.” No decision has yet been made on which countries will contribute soldiers.

No decision has been made on the potential size of any force, which would require the agreement of Burundi or a vote by AU presidents before any deployment is approved.

But Bloomberg news wire reported that the AU was proposing up to 5,000 troops in the country where violence surrounding the re- election of President Pierre Nkurunziza has killed more than 400 people since April.

Reuters also quoted a diplomat from a member country of the PSC saying the deployment of a force had been “authorised” and its mandate would include the protection of civilians.

Last week the worst violence in the country this year left at least 87 people dead, with the bloc increasingly accused of inertia. 

AU security council chief Smail Chergui said there was “a very clear message coming out of the PSC meeting: the killings in Burundi must stop immediately.”

AU ministers were briefed on military capabilities of its regional East African Standby Force for its “possible” deployment to Burundi, without giving further details.

On Wednesday, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon warned that Burundi “is on the brink of a civil war that risks engulfing the entire region.”

No decision has been made yet on what countries will contribute soldiers, said an Addis-Ababa based AU official who declined to be identified in line with policy.

Burundi has so far dismissed proposals for any peacekeeping force in an attempt to show it retains control of its territory. Burundi Foreign Minister Alain Aime Nyamitwe, speaking late Thursday, said peacekeepers aren’t needed at this time.

“How can one send troops to a country that has sent troops to other countries?” Nyamitwe said on national television, referring to Burundi’s contribution to an African Union peacekeeping misson in Somalia.

Next course

But it is unclear over the next course of action should Burundi not allow the troops in.

One difficulty arises in the lack of an identifiable organised force against the government, allowing authorities to depict the conflict as domestic.

The UN system allows for humanitarian intervention in exceptional circumstances, but it remains to be seen if the AU, keen to show it can manage regional conflict, would move into uncharted territory by applying the same principles, and go into enforcement—moving in anyway— if Bujumbura, despite international pressure, does not give consent. 

If it does so it would be the first time such a rule has been invoked in an African country by the AU, whose charter allows intervention in a member state, unlike its predecessor the Organisation of African Unity.

According to the bloc’s Chapter 4, it has the right to intervene in a member state “in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.”

The bloc is also mulling non-force measures, including sanctions.

Respond swiftly

The East African Standby Force is part the the African Standby Force, which has this year been conducting rapid deployment exercises.

First proposed in 1997, the ASF aims to have forces from one of the continent’s five regional economic blocs on standby at any time, ready to respond swiftly to crises across Africa, with an overall force size of 25,000.

Read: Ever heard of a country called Carana? Neither have we—but more than 12 African countries have troops there

“Given our experiences, specifically in response to conflict in the past, the AU felt the international community very slow to respond,” the African Union’s head of peace support operations, Sivuyile Bam, told new agency AFP last month.

“It takes time between the mandate being passed and the forces arriving on the ground -– the rule of thumb is usually nine months.

“The types of conflicts we are dealing with simply do not allow for the luxury of time.”

The ASF, heavily funded by donors, aims to be able to move in and take action within 14 days of being mandated by African Union headquarters in Ethiopia. It also is unclear if UN Security Council approval is required.

Additional reporting by Bloomberg, AFP, Reuters.

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