Tense face-off looms after Burundi rejects AU troops, labels them ‘invasion force’

Who will blink first? Bujumbura says reserves right to defend itself, while African Union key to shake off inertia tag.

THE African Union faces a key test of its seemingly new-found resolve to confront violence on the continent, after Burundi rejected the planned deployment of peacekeepers on its territory by the bloc, warning that any such move would be seen, and treated, as an “invasion force”.

Bujumbura did not even wait for the expiry of an AU 96-hour deadline to make its opposition clear, a stance that could be much to the discomfiture of the 54-member union.

“Burundi is clear on the matter: it is not ready to accept an AU force on its territory,” deputy presidential spokesman Jean-Claude Karerwa told news wire AFP on Sunday.

“If AU troops came without the government’s approval, it would be an invasion and occupation force, and the Burundi government would reserve the right to act accordingly.”

On Friday, the African Union approved the deployment of as many as 5,000 peacekeepers and gave Burundi 96 hours from the adoption of the resolution to agree to the move. The AU, for long criticised for its lumbering approach to crises on the continent, said it was invoking a a clause in its formative act that allows it to intervene in a member state if circumstances are deemed grave.

The violence in the country, which has claimed at least 400 lives and seen over 200,000 people flee, erupted in April when president Pierre Nkurunziza pressed along with plans for a controversial third term, which he won in July.

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

Looming face-off

“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,” the communique read.

The council said that if Burundi did not accept the troops, it would ask African presidents to vote to allow it to deploy anyway, informing Bujumbura’s position that they would be invading as it attempts to show that the central government retains control. 

The AU’s bold 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.

AU rights investigators last week returned from a fact-finding mission in the  country where they expressed “great concern” after witnessing some of the heaviest fighting there for months.

The AU has not announced which countries would constitute the planned force, with its chairperson tasked with the job of looking for the peacekeepers, and also lobbying the United Nations Security Council to back the move. 

On the balance, the UNSC, with the lessons of Rwanda still fresh, would ordinarily back the deployment with Burundi being a small geopolitical player where few of the Council’s members have major interests. But the positions of China and Russia will be closely watched. On the one hand they have been wary of military interventions into other countries deeming it as sovereign interference, but they also support the “African Solutions for African Problems” mantra championed by the African Union.

It thus makes it imperative that the AU, which has taken the lead on resolving the issue, succeed if it is to guarantee its credibility, with its effort in South Sudan having been overshadowed by an exasperated US.

Tuck away

In October the bloc released a delayed report on atrocities in South Sudan following an inquiry where it called for both government and rebels to face justice under an internationally-backed, African-led court.

Notably, while threatening sanctions for those on a “highly-confidential” list of alleged perpetrators, it managed to tuck a leaked recommendation in the report that the two principals—president Salva Kiir and rebel leader Riek Machar—be sidelined, only publishing it as a ’Separate Opinion” by inquiry committee member and Ugandan academic Mahmoud Mamdani.  

It has already got off on the wrong footing with Burundi, perhaps informing the need to make an authoritative statement on the country Appointed mediator in July, Uganda took its eye off the ball, as president Yoweri Museveni, now the campaign trail, made a few half-hearted attempts at resolving the issue, before downgrading it by handing over the baton to his Defence minister, Crispus Kiyonga.

The effect was the mediation effort stalled, and Uganda in only now scrambling to restart the engine, with new talks set to resume on December 28, after a scarcely-deserved five-month break. 

The jumpstarted talks will take place in Uganda, before moving to Tanzania, a venue that Nkurunziza will only be too familiar with.

In May,  East African leaders held a day-long summit in Tanzania, at which Nkurunziza was attending. While the meeting was starting, a top general announced that he had deposed the Burundian leader, effectively scuttling the summit. 

Nkurunziza only made it back to his country by road via a torturous route, and he will likely not have forgotten the seeming nonchalance that surrounded the meeting. He has since not ventured outside his borders.

It is unusual territory for the African Union, with its financial and logistical capacity still nascent, including the fact that the funding of the mission is dependent on the international community, who also meet 90% of its peace and sucurity budget. 

It will also require African leaders to vote on a forceful deployment, and it is a toss-up that many who are in precarious positions, including some who are eying a third term,  which sparked the Burundi conflagration, would be enthusiastic about it.

These are undercurrents that Burundi is all too aware of, and is choosing to hedge its bets that the African Union, well out of its comfort zone, will blink first and back down—a scenario unthinkable for a bloc staking its future on solving the continent’s problems in-house.

One option out for the AU could be to target Burundi’s Achilles Heels—ironically the country is a peacekeeper in Somalia, where it has its troops in the AU Mission in Somalia, and who have quickly become affluent back home on the back of the good pay.     

If those livelihoods were threatened Nkurunziza would be feasibly weakened, and spooked by the return of over 6,000 troops home, and would be more malleable to mediation. But despite his laid-back demeanour, the former teacher and rebel leader has shown he is no pushover, and retains a canny grasp of how to survive against the odds.

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