Burundi crisis: Nkurunziza sits pretty, AU mediation effort in chaos, and a leaked UN memo paints bleak picture

Memo sees the UN as helpless, even as nightmare of a genocide such as in Rwanda in 1994, looms

AS America’s pointman for the Great Lakes region Thomas Perriello got onto a plane Monday for a seven-nation trip that will take him into the heartland of the Burundi conflict, his office put out a notice saying it wanted talks aimed at resolving the crisis moved to Tanzania from Uganda.

This would seem puzzling, considering that the first round of talks this year took place in Arusha, Tanzania, last week anyway.

Uganda, which is the chief mediator of the talks but has been criticised for taking its eye off the ball ahead of elections next month, has reportedly not taken the US position kindly.

The American push for a change in venue may have been partly informed by the fact that Uganda president Yoweri Museveni is eyeing a fourth decade in power and may be short of the moral capital to intervene in a dispute sparked by term limits. 

Perriello had also on a visit to Kampala in November expressed frustration with the slow pace of the Uganda-led talks on the crisis and will on this visit notably skip the country.

Talks flop

Last week’s talks in Arusha flopped—the Burundi government delegation did not show up, leaving the East African Community—the bloc that is overseeing the mediation effort—struggling to put on a brave face.

But the confusion over the venue feeds into the nature of the talks themselves, a chaotic mediation that has left Burundi president Pierre Nkurunziza looking rather comfortable as everyone else frets over the outcome.

Uganda defence minister Crispus Kiyonga, to whom his boss Yoweri Museveni delegated the heavy-lifting on the talks, does not know when they will resume, having been restarted hastily on December 28 after a five-month hiatus that allowed the conflict to fester, leading to one of the deadliest months on record for Burundi.

“I don’t believe the dialogue will fail,” he told a press conference in Kampala, the Ugandan capital, on January 8. “Often times during such conflicts, the parties involved eventually embrace dialogue and in this case, progress is already visible,” he said.

He will need something more solid to take home. The conflict threatens to suck in everyone around it, as hundreds of thousands of refugees have fled Burundi, and neighbours fear for their own national security.

Rwanda, despite trying to keep its head above it, is accused of turning the other side as recruiters target Burundi refugees inside its own borders, and according to reports, even aiding recruitment.

Kigali in response said that it would not be drawn into counteraccusations, but it is an issue that is deemed serious enough for referral to the African Union (AU) heads of state summit at the end of this month in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, according to Kiyonga.

A UN in disarray

And making an already dire situation even more tenuous, a leaked memo all but confirmed that the United Nations is in disarray over how to handle the crisis, leaving it hoping the African-led mediation rights itself.

The African Union (AU) has markedly changed its tone following its newly-found but short-lived bravado last month when it gave Burundi 96 hours to accept peacekeeping troops or it would instigate moves to go in anyway.

Bujumbura held its nerve and called the bluff, saying that any such deployment would be viewed as hostile and the “invading” troops would be fired on.

It has now been over a month since that ultimatum, and the language is now much more conciliatory as the bloc tried to avoid losing face. 

“To threaten to shoot an African force is not right. For an African to say he will shoot at an African is a mistake, you cannot shoot your own force. Then who will protect us?” Kiyonga said.

“In case president Nkurunziza has a difference of opinion, he will say so in the right forum,” private Ugandan Daily Monitor quoted him as saying, in reference to the upcoming AU summit, which would have to give the green light for deployment.    

And as the bodies have piled up—this past weekend five more were discovered, adding to the toll in a conflict that has left more than 400 dead since April when Nkurunziza confirmed that he would stand for a third term. 

Tanzania back-pedals

Even Tanzania, which of all the regional actors is seen as having the most influence on Burundi, is back-pedalling.  

The country last month opposed the planned AU deployment in favour of a political solution, even as Rwanda president Paul Kagame said “some level” of armed intervention would be necessary. Arusha now backs a deployment, according to an AU statement.

Kenya, the other major player in the crisis, has preferred to go with the herd.

No country has confirmed that it would contribute troops to MAPROBU, the acronym for the mooted African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi force.

But despite the rapildy shifting sands, their uncoordinated nature has left Nkurunziza well in charge. For one the AU has no financial and military capacity to move in, with its budget still heavily bankrolled by donors.

Second, and more importantly, analysts and diplomats note that the former rebel leader still won an election in July, however controversial.  A key plank of the opposition’s demands has been that he step down, but few would realistically see such a scenario.  He wields all the instruments of power, and is now calling the shots even at the mediation—the talks are currently stalled because of his insistence that the armed opposition should not be sat in Arusha, or any other venue.  His negotiators will only resume with his say-so, presumable when he projects a favourable outcome.

Analysts see a unity government as the best case scenario, where he wouldl be convinced to step down after his current term. But even that may be difficult to nail down given the contested circumstances of his current term.

But events in Burundi may acquire more urgency after the leaked memo essentially painted the UN as helpless, even as its worst nightmare of a genocide such as that which took place in Rwanda in 1994 and for which it was hammered for its inaction, looms.

Burundi scenarios

The confidential memo, reportedly authored by peacekeeping chief Hervé Ladsous, was fired off to UN Security Council members last week. The overall message is that the UN would be unable to cope with large-scale violence, including on the scale of a genocide.

In the explosive memo reported exclusively by VICE News, Ladsous says the AU plan is for a phased deployment, the bulk of which would happen in support of a political agreement—the presence of which is key, handing Nkurunziza even more ammunition in his play towards delaying a deal.

Ladsous paints three scenarios: the first is more or less status-quo, where there is “a continuation of low-intensity, sporadic violence”. The second sees an escalation of organised violence, “ bringing the country into a situation of civil war,” while the third is the worst-case, “potentially amounting to genocide”.

The last two would see Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) drawn in. Because of the need for urgent deployment of peacekeepers, the memo suggests a draw-down of its MONUSCO mission in the DRC would be the quickest, with a 28-day timeline envisioned.

The problem with this is two-fold: with no countries having signed up for the AU force, those in MONUSCO would have to be convinced to deploy into Burundi. South Africa, Kenya and Tanzania have soldiers in the Congo mission, alongside 13 other African countries—and also Russia, the US, and China.

The memo says it has put out feelers to the 49-nation mission, and two countries “had responded positively” but does not say which. 

The second is that DR Congo faces an election this year—ironically one that has the same tinge as Burundi’s, with president Joseph Kabila expected to vie in controversial elections in what is already a fragile country.

Interesting, operationally a mission in Burundi would require Kinshasa’s approval, which raises the question—given Kabila will, like Nkurunziza, be eying a third term, would he cooperate given the sense of déjà vu in what is going on in Burundi? Or would the resulting security gaps be viewed as more room to push through a contested candidature?

The armed groups in the eastern DRC are also a threat to Rwanda, making for a tinder-box scenario—Kigali has never made a secret that national security, given its past horrors, remains its overriding priority.

Even if the UN gets its act together, as many as 10,000 troops would need up to six months to be deployed, a sort of last-ditch attempt and of which it does not sound confident about.  

“The last-resort deployment outlined here will seek to save as many lives as possible, but a truly worst-case scenario will result in a scale of violence beyond the United Nations’ capacity to protect against without significant additional capabilities,” reads the memo.

But with tension on the rise in Burundi, the clock is ticking on a situation which looks to have been made a hash of, as the AU rushed to get in ahead of the international community and push continental solutions. 

Having wrested the lead, it now has its work cut out to pull the iron out of the fire. Nkurunziza awaits its next move.

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