AU in uncharted territory as comes down hard on Burundi with sanctions, troop deployment

Long criticised for shielding African leaders, the bloc has moved substantively in what could be a momentous step in its history.

LONG criticised for its inability to bring its weight to bear on crisis situation on the continent, the African Union has stepped up, backing up already unusually tough talk over Burundi with action in what could be a key moment in its 13-year history. 

After days of whispers, the 54-member bloc on Friday approved the deployment of as many as 5,000 peacekeepers,  invoking a clause in its formative act that allows it to intervene in a member state if circumstances are deemed grave.

The mission, known as the African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi (MAPROBU), will be deployed for an initial six months, which is renewable, the bloc’s peace and security council said in a communique released Friday. 

The AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, had been staunch in keeping off the internal affairs of members states, which earned it the tag of being a dictator’s club. 

In its communique, the council essentially gave Burundi the weekend to accept the force, failure to which it will push African presidents to vote to allow it to deploy anyway.   

“In this regard, Council decides, in the event of non-acceptance of the deployment of MAPROBU, to recommend to the Assembly of the Union…the implementation of article 4 (h) of the [AU] Constitutive Act relating to intervention in a Member State in certain serious circumstances”.

Read: AU ‘to move 5,000 troops’ into Burundi, seeks Nkurunziza consent but could go in anyway

Some familiar obstacles are still in view, with funding from member states for the force unlikely to be adequate, forcing it to turn to donors. The bloc has asked the United Nations to support the deployment, and while the Security Council would back  the localised search for as resolution, the stances of Russia and China will be keenly followed. 

Troop-contributing members are also as yet unknown.

Higher death toll

The plan comes a week after after the single bloodiest day in the East African nation’s eight-month crisis, when armed attacks on military barracks in the capital, Bujumbura, prompted security forces to sweep neighbourhoods for opponents. 

While the army said 87 people died on December 11, the Paris-based Worldwide Movement for Human Rights alleged that at least 154 civilians were killed.

The council said it condemned both the attacks in the barracks and the killings in the aftermath. Authors and sponsors of the attacks and reprisals “shall be held accountable”. it said.

Violence in landlocked Burundi erupted in April after president Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would seek a third term in elections, which he later won. 

Opponents say he violated a two-term limit in a 2005 peace deal that ended a civil war.

The AU said it was drawing top a list of sanctions, including travel bans and asset freezes, on those who would stand in the way of the search for peace.

‘Distracted’

The role of Uganda as mediator was also acknowledged, even as concerns that president Yoweri Museveni is distracted as he is on the campaign trail.

In a related development, efforts to end violence in Burundi will resume December 28 after a five-month hiatus, according to the facilitator of the talks, Ugandan Defense Minister Crispus Kiyonga, Bloomberg news reported.

The first negotiations since July 19 will restart in Uganda and transfer to Tanzania, Kiyonga told reporters Saturday in the Ugandan capital, Kampala. 

The Burundian government, opposition and officials of neighbouring countries will discuss a national unity administration and the return of refugees, among other issues, said Kiyonga.

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