BURUNDIAN President Pierre Nkurunziza said the country will defend itself against any peacekeepers the African Union plans to send to quell its eight-month political crisis.
“If these troops come, it will be seen as an attack and the country will stand up to defend itself,” Nkurunziza said in comments broadcast Wednesday on national radio.
He said Burundi’s borders and sovereignty should be respected.
The African Union on Dec. 18 approved the deployment of as many as 5,000 peacekeepers to Burundi, where violence spurred by Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term has left more than 400 people dead since April.
The continental bloc gave Burundi four days to agree to the troops, a proposal the government and lawmakers quickly rejected.
Two of the country’s neighbours, Rwanda and Tanzania, have already ruled out contributing soldiers to any force.
African Union troops can’t come without the United Nations’ consent, Nkurunziza said. He didn’t say if approval by the UN would then mean Burundi’s government would accept the deployment.
Is it all bluster?
Some of Burundi’s political factions met in Uganda on Monday, in talks mediated by the East African Community.
Burundi’s government that day said it wouldn’t accept the idea of Tanzania hosting further discussions starting next week.
Opponents say Nkurunziza’s July re-election violates a two- term limit set out in accords that ended a civil war in 2005.
However, Nkurunziza’s tough talk might be no more than bluster.
His challenge to the AU is more likely based more on the knowledge that the continental force has no money and military resources of its own to send any troops to Burundi quickly.
Should however the AU find those resources, it’s unlikely Nkurunziza would actually order his army to shoot them if they landed in Bujumbura without his say so.
To begin with, the Burundi army is riven by divisions and more sections of it would peel off and back international peacekeeping troops – especially if it were an African force. That would weaken Nkurunziza further.
Diplomatic sources told Mail & Guardian Africa that while Rwanda and Tanzania have said they won’t send in troops, Uganda “has not ruled out it out and is working on the assumption that a regional force will have to go to Burundi”.
In the case of Rwanda, if the violence in Burundi spread and was seen to be targeting ethnic Tutsi, with the still fresh memory of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda where the majority of victims were Tutsi, Kigali would also intervene militarily.
African Union leverage
However, the AU also has bigger leverage over Burundi in the form of the African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia, known as AMISOM.
There are over 5,000 Burundi troops serving in AMISOM. The country followed Uganda in 2007 in sending troops to Somalia.
AMISOM service is the most prized job in the poverty-stricken country, whose economy has all but evaporated since the unrest broke out there in April.
Analysts say the fees that the Burundi government is paid for peacekeeping and the salaries of its troops in Somalia, are probably the most important source of foreign exchange for the country today.
If Burundi continues defiance of the AU, or attacked its troops, it would most likely be kicked out of AMISOM.
The last thing Nkurunziza and his increasingly hardline inner circle can afford now, is having over 5,000 soldiers who have been earning over $750 and other allowances, returning to a chaotic Burundi and not getting paid for months, or earning less than $50.
Nkurunziza needs to posture and look strong, but in all likelihood he would cut his losses and make a deal once a big hammer is brought out against him.
-Additional reporting by Bloomberg & AFP