African Union's 'hot air' as it backpedals on Burundi; Nkurunziza pulls off a deadly diplomatic victory

"...we [AU] meet often, we talk too much, we always write a lot, but we don't do enough, and sometimes nothing all" - Chad president Idriss Deby

WHEN the dust settles, it will be the small geopolitical lightweight of Burundi that eventually showed up the soft belly of the African Union, the continent’s 54-member bloc.

There was considerable interest when in December the bloc said it would send in troops to stabilise Burundi, where fears of a genocide have swirled since president Pierre Nkurunziza planned and executed a successful third term. 

The AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC), which functions not too unlike the UN’s Security Council, while announcing the decision said it would not allow “another genocide” on its watch, referring to events in neighbouring Rwanda and which came to a head in 1994.

The UN has warned Burundi risks a repeat of a 1993-2006 civil war, with hundreds killed since April 2015, when Nkurunziza announced he would stand for a controversial third term in office, and nearly 240,000 people having fled to neighbouring countries.

To avoid this, the African Union would for the first time invoke the never-before used Chapter 4 of its founding charter, which gives it the right to intervene in a member state “in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.”

The deadline that wasn’t

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.”

Essentially, the bloc would send troops into Burundi whether Nkurunziza liked it or not, and to demonstrate its seriousness, gave Bujumbura four days to allow the force in, known as the African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi (MAPROBU).

It all went downhill from there. Nkurunziza didn’t like it, and called the bluff, terming the proposed troops “an invasion” force from which Burundi would have to defend itself if they came in without his say-so.

Deadline day came and passed, and the tone from the AU gradually started changing, from one of bold intent to one seeking to assuage.

“Shooting at the African Union peacekeepers would be a big mistake,” Ugandan Minister of Defence Crispus Kiyonga, said last month. He was supervising the mediation effort on behalf of his boss, President Yoweri Museveni, who is currently on the campaign trail, and has been accused of lacking enthusiasm for the effort.

“We are all members of AU and we are bound by its resolutions. If one is not satisfied with AU’s decision, they can challenge it through proper channels, like through the AU summit.”

By end of January, the AU was calling such a decision to move in as “unimaginable”.

“It was never the intention of the African Union to deploy a mission to Burundi without the consent of Burundian authorities,” Ibrahima Fall, who is the AU Special Representative for the Great Lakes Region, told French radio RFI.

Chergui completed the rowback: “There is no will neither to occupy nor to attack,” he added, saying that troops could be sent in the future “if Burundi accepts it”.

Once it became clear Burundi was intransigent over allowing foreign troops on its soil, which would signal it had lost control, the next decision lay with the AU heads of state summit, which takes meets twice a year, including the last weekend in January.

Any decision to deploy would also have had to be backed by the UN Security Council, its most powerful members who would have ended footing the bill for the mission, abbreviated MAPROBU.

Ahead of the summit, UN Security Council members travelled to Burundi, their second visit in less than a year, where the message was that they would tell Nkurunziza to his face to take action and stop the violence.

AU Commission chief Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma could only express “the fervent hope” that the UN ambassadors will “contribute toward achieving” the rapid deployment of the peacekeepers and the “immediate resumption of the inter-Burundian dialogue”, in reference to stalled talks between the government and opposition.

Stop “meddling”

Arriving in the capital, the UN ambassadors were accorded a colourful welcome, with hundreds of pro-government demonstrators urging them to stop “meddling”.

As it were, Nkurunziza essentially laughed them out of town. 

The talks “didn’t achieve as much, frankly, as I think we would have liked”, US Ambassador Samantha Power admitted after meeting the 52-year old former rebel fighter.

Samantha Power

Nkurunziza was said to have take a hard line during the meeting at his hilltop residence in Gitega, some two hours outside of Bujumbura, where he rejected calls for inclusive dialogue, renewed mediation efforts and an international intervention force—in other words, everything.

The venue was instructive—the president, who hasn’t left the country since a failed coup in May last year, is also rarely in the capital, where tit-for-tat battles are pitched between loyalists and insurgents, and which was the setting for a massacre late in December, evidence of which satellite images of mass graves last week unearthed.

The despondent envoys then travelled to Addis Ababa for the summit, to meet with AU officials in the hope of crafting a way out of the impasse. The UN had little leverage: its historical cleavages meant members such as Russia and China, who back the “African solutions” mantra, were wary of applying too much pressure on Burundi, even as the US and France sought a stronger line. 

A leaked memo that they had no capacity to act in Burundi also did them no favours.

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

Burundi was the key issue at the summit, as notable Africans and allies piled on the pressure.

“This is a grave test of AU credibility, and of the continent’s ability to solve its own problems. Failure to act now would dent the reputation of the institution and those at its helm, and constitute a betrayal of the ordinary civilians in both countries whose lives are gravely affected by continuing violence and a lack of accountability,” Sudanese-born billionaire Mo Ibrahim said in an open letter. It was signed by among others Navi Pillay, a former UN high commissioner for human rights, and pan-African entrepreneur Ashish Thakkar.

Burundi’s many wins

In Addis, after two days of talks behind closed doors, African leaders failed Sunday to authorise the proposed peacekeeping force. To muddy the waters, Burundi was re-elected to the AU’s Peace and Security Council, three months after it won a seat on the UN Human Rights Council, giving it a ringside seat to discussions about it. 

Instead, the African Union said it will send envoys to Burundi for more talks. “We want dialogue with the government, and the summit decided to dispatch a high level delegation,” Chergui told reporters.

Burundi Foreign Minister Alain Aime Nyamitwe drilled some more holes of triumph, as he wondered why AU envoys would even want to take the time to travel to Bujumbura “since “everyone is aware of the position of Burundi” already.

But Nyamitwe, who has been the tenacious face of the embattled Burundi government, expressed “satisfaction” at the outcome. Bujumbura was “open to cooperating with the international community, particularly the African Union,” he added.

This is despite the fact that just about the only concession Nkurunziza has given the AU was agreeing to delay elections by a month, which he successfully went on to win.

The outcome adds up to a masterstroke for Nkurunziza. In sizing up the diplomatic climate on the continent he hedged his bets correctly by calculating that the AU had no capacity—financial, technical or even moral—in imposing its decision.

When the AU takes stock this week, it will have successfully completed a near-360-degree turn over the crisis, and unwittingly, its new political head diagnosed its problem. 

A do-nothing organisation?

Chad President Idriss Deby, speaking after he took over the post of African Union chairman on Saturday, warned colleagues against inaction.

“Our organisation acts as it has for the past 20 or 30 years: we meet often, we talk too much, we always write a lot, but we don’t do enough, and sometimes nothing all,” Deby said.

Analysts said other African nations were wary of setting a precedent of deploying troops against the government’s wishes.

But in blinking first, the AU has also created a rod for its own back. If Burundi were to go into full civil war in the absence of its peacekeeping mission it would feasibly leave its credibility on keeping regional stability in tatters.

The signs of a deepening situation are increasingly there—ethnic language has been increasingly deployed by the ruling party, while the man who led the failed coup against Nkurunziza, Gen Godefroid Niyombare, is now said to be the leader of a new armed opposition group, to go with a smattering of others that have taken form.

The issue of Burundi refugees being recruited from camps in Rwanda remains a sensitive point: Kigali has denied it while Nkurunziza hopes proving this would further inflame tribal tensions between majority Hutus and minority Tutsis in Burundi and further tangle up the situation.

Rwanda hosts the next AU summit, slated for July.

Yet the AU had the leverage tools: Nkurunziza would have been unlikely to fire on African troops—in addition to the uproar, doing so would have endangered its participation in the AU mission in Somalia, the generous pay which has been a key factor in the stability of the Burundi military. 

The country’s feared Imbonerakure militia may have the ability to beat down unarmed civilians, but they also would not have stood up to organised forces. 

Missed opportunities

The bloc also has some strategic countries that could still have brought their weight to bear. South Africa and Tanzania were key to the crafting of the definitive Arusha Accords which have for the most part kept Burundi stable and papered over the historical fault lines, which go back to post-independent Burundi, but flared but with the 1993 assassination of Hutu president Melchior Ndadaye. 

While South Africa today is a far cry from the days of  the visionary Nelson Mandela, who at one time sent in special forces to protect exiles returning to negotiate, in addition to troops in the resulting AU mission, or the more globally astute Thabo Mbeki, Tanzania has a new president who would have seized the moment to make his name on the international scene. Tanzania at one point even asked Nkurunziza to abandon his quest for an additional term, and is host to the bulk of Burundi refugees.

But John Magufuli is still pitching his tent domestically. It all leaves a conflict with no clear end in sight, with Nkurunziza looking to starve out the mediation effort, and regional negotiators hoping he gives some quarter to the opposing forces.

With the divisions of the past one year, it is within the realms of reason that this current contested term will not be his last.

The option would be what everybody, particularly an AU that has struggled for traction fears: all-out civil war.

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