Army soldiers stand on the main road in the Cibitoke neighbourhood of Bujumbura, Burundi, as protesters try to prevent authorities from removing barricades, on 9 May 2015.
Army soldiers stand on the main road in the Cibitoke neighbourhood of Bujumbura, Burundi, as protesters try to prevent authorities from removing barricades, on 9 May 2015. AFP/Phil Moore
Report 247 / Africa

Burundi: The Army in Crisis

Two years on, the Burundi crisis shows little sign of resolution. Political and ethnic polarisation are now tearing apart the integrity of the army, long seen as the primary achievement of the Arusha peace agreement in 2000 which brought an end to protracted civil conflict.

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Executive Summary

Two years in, the Burundi crisis shows little sign of resolution. Following the July 2015 re-election of President Nkurunziza, whose April decision to run again sparked the troubles, and with no progress made in the mediation, the crisis has turned into a low intensity conflict. Almost 400,000 Burundians have fled the country. Since the attempted coup of May 2015, political polarisation has had violent repercussions in the army. A series of attacks have targeted numerous officers, both those favourable to the president’s political ambitions and those suspected of sympathy with the coup plotters. Assassination attempts have also taken place abroad. Following over ten years of foreign support for the army’s transformation, its reputation has suffered greatly. International training has ended, and the army’s lucrative participation in peacekeeping operations is in doubt. This divided and demoralised army is a major threat to the country’s stability. Only a real dialogue, more urgent now than ever, between the government and the opposition could offer assurances to those officers concerned at the politicisation of their institution.

Long seen as the primary achievement of the Arusha peace agreement which ended the civil war in 2000, the army today is a microcosm of the country’s crisis. Through its multi-ethnic makeup, foreign training, and its role in international peacekeeping, the Burundian army had acquired a good reputation outside the country and a privileged position at home. But fragilities remained under the surface, and the 2015 crisis easily broke the key consensus on which the stability of the regime was based: between the army and civilian power, and within the army between the former rebels, most of whom come from the ruling party, and the old guard. Ever since, the regime has tried to regain its hold on the military through purging or killing real or suspected opponents within its ranks – starting with officers from the pre-war army and Tutsi officers, but also targeting former Hutu rebels, including high ranking officers.

The current crisis, in the form of tit-for-tat assassinations of soldiers and officers, is a violent reminder of the limits of the Arusha agreement within the army, and of the efforts made over ten years to depoliticise and professionalise it. It also reveals political and ethnic tensions that have continued to undermine it despite the reforms. The crisis has led to numerous defections and has compromised its future prospects. The European Union and the UN are reluctant to increase Burundi’s participation in peacekeeping missions and have taken steps to limit it. This participation used to be a source of revenue for an otherwise impoverished army, and a way of integrating its different parts. The current challenge to it and to associated external support could eventually weaken the economic and social advantages associated with the military career, and is a further risk for the stability of the country.

The crisis in the army, reflecting that of the country, underlines the continued risk that the situation could deteriorate further.

Impoverished and ethnically and politically polarised, the army is reforming around a loyalist hard core and open confrontations between army factions have been avoided since May 2015. But this apparent and only relative calm is based mainly on fear and should not mislead outside observers. The army that has been built since 2004 is now in ruins, and cannot be reconstituted short of an inclusive political agreement. This appears ever further off with the continued hardening of the regime and consequent difficulties encountered by the mediation of former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa. Without such a political agreement, the army faces two scenarios: a new confrontation, which could take the form of a new coup d’Etat, or a quiet but certain decline.

The relative success of army integration since 2004 has flowed from the Arusha Agreement. In this context, only guarantees concerning its continued application, or its consensual updating, could reassure officers that their future and that of their institution is secure. The UN, the African Union, the East African Community and the European Union should continue to push for an inclusive dialogue between the government and the exiled opposition, despite the government’s intransigence, which has hindered mediation attempts, and international partners who have supported the army since 2004 should not reinvest in an institution now deeply politicised as long as it remains under the control of an authoritarian and violent regime. The involvement of the Burundian army in peacekeeping operations should continue only under strict vetting conditions of the individuals taking part. The crisis in the army, reflecting that of the country, underlines the continued risk that the situation could deteriorate further.

Nairobi/Brussels, 5 April 201

I. Introduction

The Burundian crisis, which erupted in April 2015 over disagreement about the legitimacy of President Pierre Nkurunziza’s candidacy for a third term, continues.[fn]Crisis Group has followed the Burundian crisis since it began and has analysed its different phases. See Crisis Group Africa Reports N°224, Elections in Burundi: Moment of Truth, 17 April 2015; and N°235, Burundi: A Dangerous Third TermBurundi: A Dangerous Third Term, 20 May 2016; and Africa Briefing N°111, Burundi: Peace Sacrificed?, 29 May 2015.Hide Footnote Since his re-election in July 2015, the government and its opponents have been involved in a low-intensity armed struggle. While demonstrators protested against a third term (April-July 2015), the army made sure it stayed out of the political crisis, observing developments but not taking part in the repression. Unlike the police, the army avoided the use of force. Some soldiers even stepped in to prevent confrontation between demonstrators and police officers, which sometimes led to violence between police or intelligence service officers, and soldiers.[fn]“Burundi: un militaire tué par un officier du renseignement, neuf manifestants blessés”, Le Monde, 30 April 2015.Hide Footnote

However, an attempted coup on 13 May 2015 highlighted dissent within the army.[fn]For more on the attempted coup, see Crisis Group Briefing, Burundi: Peace Sacrificed?, op. cit.; and “Christine Deslaurier: ‘Pierre Nkurunziza avait bien préparé ses arrières’”, Jeune Afrique, 21 May 2015.Hide Footnote The Arusha Agreement of 2000, which enshrined the principle of ethnic parity in the security forces, and later agreements between the National Council for the Defence of Democracy/Forces for the Defence of Democracy (Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces de défense de la démocratie, CNDD-FDD) and the National Liberation Forces (Forces nationales de libération, FNL), a rebel Hutu group dating from the civil war and the FDD’s great rival, provided for the integration of the rebels into the army, with the support of guarantors of the Arusha Agreement, including the UN and South Africa.[fn]These two parties, with a large Hutu majority, took up arms against the government of President Buyoya and boycotted the Arusha Agreement before joining the peace process in 2003 (CNDD-FDD) and 2009 (FNL).Hide Footnote In 2004, the rebel groups and an army mainly composed of and led by Tutsis merged to form the National Defence Force (Force de défense nationale, FDN). The former Burundian Armed Forces (ex-FAB) form the old guard of the army, mainly Tutsi, while the former Armed Political Parties and Movements (ex-Partis et mouvements politiques armés, ex-PMPA) are former combatants of mainly Hutu armed groups, including the FDD, which is now in power, and which were integrated into the army after the peace agreements.[fn]For more on the FDD, see Crisis Group Report, Burundi: A Dangerous Third Term, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The attempted overthrow of the government, when President Nkurunziza was in Tanzania for an East African Community (EAC) summit, was led by Godefroid Niyombare, former armed forces chief of staff and a very popular and historic figure in the governing party, and Cyrille Ndayirukiye, former defence minister and member of the former Burundian Armed Forces. It revealed opposition to a third term among some officers and dragged the army right into the middle of the political maelstrom. Ndayirukiye and three other generals were sentenced to life imprisonment and Niyombare went into exile.[fn]“Burundi ex minister, generals, jailed for life over coup”, Reuters, 15 January 2016.Hide Footnote Political violence then erupted in the army: the government moved against suspects in an attempt to eradicate every pocket of resistance.

The army and its dissident factions are far from being the only perpetrators of the violence that has shaken Burundi since 2015. While the army has been reformed in line with the Arusha Agreement, the agreed quotas were not implemented in the police force, where many officers today are ex-PMPA, and were not applied strictly to the National Intelligence Service (Service national de renseignement, SNR).[fn]Although the Arusha Agreement agreed on the need to correct ethnic imbalances in the defence and security forces, which include the National Intelligence Service, it did not specifically include a 50 per cent quota for the latter, unlike the army and the police force. Articles 12-3 and 16 of the Arusha Agreement, 28 August 2000.Hide Footnote The government has therefore been able to place former civil war allies in these two institutions. They are now largely loyal to the government and their leadership is very politicised. The SNR, very close to the PMPA, and formerly led by a radical member of the government, Adolphe Nshimirimana, has long been the most feared institution in Burundi.

The FNL was the last armed group to join the peace talks and the government only started to integrate its combatants into the FDN in 2009. After their political party boycotted the 2010 elections, they suffered fierce repression from the government and some of them who had joined the FDN fled. Some went back to the bush led by Aloys Nzabempema in South Kivu in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The crisis has accelerated these desertions and intensified the repression of FNL militants. However, their historic leader, Agathon Rwasa, remains in Burundi and has sat in parliament since the 2015 elections.

II. From a Political to a Military Crisis

A. Purges and Reprisals

The 2015 campaign against the third term continued into 2016 within the military. A series of tit-for-tat assassinations has created a climate of paranoia and major tensions within the army.

Since August 2015, killings of soldiers have continued. The victims’ identity, often officers, indicates that these are mainly targeted killings in reprisal for either support of or opposition to a third term. The assassination of General Adolphe Nshimirimana, former head of the National Intelligence Service, on 2 August 2015 was followed on 15 August by the assassination of Colonel Jean Bikomagu, from the former Burundian Armed Forces (ex-FAB), armed forces chief of staff at the time of the coup against the Hutu President Ndadaye in 1993 and a symbol of the Tutsi military old guard and the rejection of a Hutu government.[fn]It is common knowledge that Jean Bikomagu played a major role in the bloody coup of 1993. Crisis Group interview, army officer, Brussels, June 2016. Nigel Watt, Burundi: the Biography of a Small African Country (London, 2016), p. 47.Hide Footnote

On 22 March 2016, Lieutenant Colonel Darius Ikurakure, from the former Armed Political Parties and Movements and in charge of repression in the northern neighbourhoods of Bujumbura, and, a few hours later, Major Didier Muhimpundu (ex-FAB), were killed.[fn]Ikurakure’s men were deployed in the districts of Ngagara, Cibitoke, Mutakura and Kinama, in Bujumbura. He was well known for having participated in the brutal army operation against rebels who were never clearly identified in Cibitoke province at the start of 2015, in the defence of Burundi National Radio and Television (RTNB) during the attempted coup in May 2015, and in the repression in Nyakabiga neighbourhood of Bujumbura on 11 December 2015. He was posthumously decorated by the president of the republic at the independence anniversary celebrations on 1 July 2016. Crisis Group interview, civil society member, Bujumbura, March 2016. “Un anniversaire sous le signe de la loyauté”, Iwacu, 1 July 2016.Hide Footnote The armed forces chief of staff, ex-FDD, General Prime Niyongabo, escaped an assassination attempt in September 2015, while General Athanase Kararuza (ex-FAB and military adviser to the first vice president) was killed in an ambush in front of the Saint-Esprit College in Bujumbura on 25 April 2016.[fn]“Burundi: le chef d’état-major échappe de justesse à un attentat”, Radio France Internationale (RFI), 11 September 2015. “Assassinat du général Athanase Kararuza: une embuscade bien montée”, Iwacu, 2 May 2016.Hide Footnote

When armed groups do not openly claim responsibility […] the modus operandi generally bears the hallmarks of the military.

Although the ex-FAB (on active service and retired) were the first to come under suspicion from the regime, its violence has not spared the former Armed Political Parties and Movements opposed to the third term, such as Colonel Emmanuel Buzubona, former number two of military intelligence, assassinated on 20 April 2016.[fn]Arrested on 12 December 2015 by the National Intelligence Service on suspicion of collaborating with opponents of the third term, before being released a few days later, he was killed in the Kinama neighbourhood of Bujumbura. “Burundi: un officier de l’armée tué”, BBC, 21 April 2016.Hide Footnote When armed groups do not openly claim responsibility, such as the Republican Forces of Burundi (Forces républicaines du Burundi, FOREBU) for the killing of Darius Ikurakure, the modus operandi generally bears the hallmarks of the military (weaponry, knowledge of the routines followed by victims, access to places, etc.).[fn]The FOREBU is a rebel group initially led by Godefroid Niyombare. “Burundi: le Forebu revendique l’assassinat d’un officier de l’armée”, Africanews, 23 March 2016. Lieutenant Colonel Darius Ikurakure was killed at general staff headquarters by someone in fatigues who fled in a car. Several corroborating sources indicate that his murderer was a soldier who had lost relatives during the repression in Mutakura in December. Crisis Group interviews, civil society member, Bujumbura, March 2016; army officer, Nairobi, August 2016. In addition to these tit-for-tat killings, soldiers are responsible for other acts of violence against each other, which the government tries to minimise, being unable to conceal them (one killed on 28 March 2016 at Muzinda camp, several members of the presidential guard killed on 19 June in Bujumbura).[fn]Hide Footnote

Army personnel, both on active service and retired, arrested by the National Intelligence Service (SNR) sometimes disappear. It is impossible to make an exhaustive list of these arrests but some of them attest that the ex-FAB is being targeted. In 2016, some ex-FAB retired personnel were arrested or killed, soldiers arrested in September were found guilty of endangering state security, and an adjutant died on SNR premises on 14 September.[fn]“Rapport n°29”, SOS-Torture/Burundi, 2 July 2016; “Rapport n°44”, SOS-Torture/Burundi, 15 October 2016; “Bulletin spécial sur la répression du pouvoir contre des militaires et policiers”, Ligue burundaise des droits de l’Homme Iteka, September 2016; “Les familles des militaires arrêtés au Burundi de plus en plus inquiètes”, RFI, 29 September 2016.Hide Footnote After having targeted officers, repression now seems to be focusing on intermediate army levels (non-commissioned officers) as well as on retired personnel. The climate of fear is such that ex-FAB personnel serving in Somalia dread returning to their country when on leave – several of them have been arrested on their return.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Burundian army officer, Nairobi, August 2016; soldier, Bangui, November 2016.Hide Footnote

The authorities deny the seriousness of the crisis. They denounce an external attempt to destabilise the country and claim “there is no unrest in the army”.[fn]Hide Footnote However, violence carried out with a military modus operandi continued to the end of 2016 and into 2017: attempted assassination of Willy Nyamitwe on 28 November; clashes leaving several victims in the ranks of the National Defence Force in South Kivu, DRC, on 21 December; assassination of the environment minister on 1 January; attack on Mukoni military base in Muyinga province on 23 January, followed by another wave of arrests of military personnel; and a clash between a faction of the National Liberation Forces (FNL) and the army in Gatumba, in the province of Bujumbura Rural, on 7 February.[fn]Respectively: “Tentative d’assassinat contre Willy Nyamitwe : les deux camps sont déchaînés”, Iwacu, 5 December 2016. “Révélation/Une incursion tourne mal dans l’Est de la RDC”, Iwacu, 2 January 2017. “Burundi : assassinat du ministre de l’environnement”, Le Monde, 1 January 2017. About twenty soldiers were arrested, some died and seven were convicted after a summary trial; a major was reportedly executed by one of his colleagues during an arrest attempt although the army denied this and claimed this was an unfortunate mistake; “Tentative de vol ou montage”, Iwacu, 2 February 2017. “Tweet de SOS Médias Burundi, @SOSMediasBDI, 9h19, 7 February 2017”,

B. Desertions and Attempts to Organise Abroad

The fear of being killed has increased the number of desertions from the Burundian army since 2015, as confirmed by the UN.[fn]“Final Report of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo”, UN Security Council S/2016/466, 23 May 2016, paragraphs 34 and 36.Hide Footnote According to Burundian military sources, between 600 and 2,000 soldiers have deserted since the crisis began, including senior officers.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, army officers, Nairobi and Brussels, June 2016.Hide Footnote These include Lieutenant Colonel Alexandre Mbazumutima, intelligence officer with the 120th brigade, Major Emmanuel Ndayikeza, second-in-command of the support battalion in the first military region, an elite unit based in Bujumbura, and Colonel Edouard Nshimirimana, communications officer, who reportedly deserted, the latter with about 40 soldiers and carrying arms, ammunition and communications equipment.[fn]“Burundi : deux responsables désertent l’armée”, RFI, 3 October 2015. “Fears grow in Burundi as executions and desertions undermine army”, The Guardian, 29 April 2016.Hide Footnote Several desertions took place in the summer of 2016 in Ethiopia, Belgium and from the Higher Institute of Army Officers.[fn]“Point de presse sur des cas de désertions à la FDN”, defence and veterans’ affairs ministry, 19 August 2016. “Burundi: Tutsi army officers on mission abroad choose to defect instead of returning home”, International Business Times, 18 August 2016.Hide Footnote

Meanwhile, several armed opposition groups have appeared. The Resistance for the Rule of Law in Burundi (Résistance pour un Etat de droit au Burundi, RED-Tabara) and the Republican Forces of Burundi (FOREBU) were formed at the end of 2015/beginning of 2016. A group of National Liberation Forces combatants commanded by Aloys Nzabampema, opposed to the historic leader Agathon Rwasa, has been active on the Congo-Burundi border for several years.[fn]Crisis Group interview, FLN member, Nairobi, August 2016.Hide Footnote

The latter group scarcely communicates but the other two groups have expressed their willingness to resort to arms against the government without, however, opposing attempts at mediation.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interviews, armed groups members, August 2016.Hide Footnote All three probably have contacts inside the country. The RED-Tabara is the armed wing of the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD) led by Alexis Sinduhidje. FOREBU has been led by Colonel Nshimirimana since the coup leader General Godefroid Niyombare took on a secondary role, at least in terms of media presence.[fn]For more on Alexis Sinduhidje and RED-Tabara, see “Final Report of the Group of Experts on the Democratic Republic of Congo”, op. cit., paragraph 33. “Communiqué de presse du Forebu”, 18 August 2016.Hide Footnote This is the only group to be mainly composed of soldiers who served in the National Defence Force. Its hard core is formed by soldiers involved in the coup of 13 May 2015.

As the leaders of RED-Tabara and FOREBU are in exile, like most opponents, the regime has tried to target them abroad. It uses members of the SNR and Imbonerakure to infiltrate refugee camps and opposition circles.[fn]The Imbonerakure is the governing party’s youth section but also includes many demobilised combatants. “Réfugiés burundais : la vie en exil”, Crisis Group commentary, 25 October 2016. “Fleeing Burundi won’t protect you from its government”, Foreign Policy, 4 November 2016.Hide Footnote Attempts to kill opponents (not necessarily linked to armed groups) have already occurred in Nairobi (Kenya) and Kampala (Uganda).[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil society member, Nairobi, August 2016. “Burundi : un journaliste en exil agressé au couteau”, Jeune Afrique, 3 August 2016. “Burundi. Répression aux dynamiques génocidaires”, FIDH/Ligue Iteka, November 2016. “Two police officers, taxi driver charged with abducting Interpol official”, The Star, Nairobi, 30 May 2016.Hide Footnote

III. An End to the Pretence: Undermining Arusha

A. Integration without Cohesion: Army Reform

Formed in 2004, the National Defence Force is the product of a politico-military agreement. After three decades of mono-ethnic military dictatorship, the signatories of the Arusha Agreement accepted the principle of ethnic parity in the security forces (50 per cent Hutu and 50 per cent Tutsi) and included it in the third protocol.[fn]Arusha Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Burundi, Protocol III, article 14-1. g., 28 August 2000.Hide Footnote The duration of this ethnic balance remained undecided and has still not been set.[fn]“For a period to be decided by the Senate, no more than 50% of the National Defence Force shall belong to the same ethnic group at both the command and rank-and-file levels”. Law n°1/019 of 31 December 2004 on the creation, organisation, missions, composition and operation of the National Defence Force, article 14.Hide Footnote In 2003, as part of peace negotiations with the National Council for the Defence of Democracy/Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), this agreement on ethnic composition was completed by an agreement on the political composition of the security forces. The Technical Forces Agreement stated that the CNDD-FDD should occupy 40 per cent of army command posts.[fn]Pretoria Protocol, 8 October 2003 and Technical Forces Agreement, chapter 2, article 2, November 2003.Hide Footnote

To achieve this dual ethnic and political objective, the National Defence Force went through a phase of demobilisation and restructuring. From 2004 to 2008, 41,000 former Burundian armed forces (ex-FAB) members and 15,500 former armed political parties and movements (ex-PMPA) members were demobilised.[fn]Nina Wilén, “From Foe to Friend? Army integration after war in Burundi, Rwanda and the Congo”, International Peacekeeping, 11 November 2015.Hide Footnote With the prospect of a 25,00o-strong army, half of which were to be drawn from the Hutu ethnic group, Tutsi soldiers were the most affected. Supported by foreign partners, the operation to demobilise ex-FAB and integrate ex-rebels took place smoothly even though it was considered to be the major challenge facing the new government and the main risk of destabilising the transition. The political pact on power sharing between yesterday’s enemies played a major role in the creation of a new army over a four-year period, considered to be a success by both the Burundian military and foreign partners.

However, the process was not without problems. Demobilised combatants kept their arms, which contributed to the rise in crime.[fn]Crisis Group interview, demobilised ex-combatant, Brussels, June 2016.Hide Footnote As the demobilisation payment for young ex-FAB officers was €300 and three months’ wages, reintegration in civilian life was difficult for many of them.[fn]Crisis Group interview, demobilised ex-combatant, Brussels, June 2016. Burundi: The Biography of a Small African Country, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Evaluations of the army reform generally confuse integration and cohesion. Integration, which at the start of the 2000s took the form of disarmament, and later of an integrated armed forces staff and international deployments, allowed former enemies to get to know each other. This could, moreover, explain the alliances between former armed political parties and movements and former Burundian armed forces behind the attempted coup of May 2015.

However, the lack of social contact between ex-FAB and ex-FDD indicated the lack of cohesion. For example, the officers’ mess in Bujumbura was not used by ex-FDD officers, who had their own places to socialise, notably General Nishimirimana’s bars. Attempts at fraternisation between the two groups of officers were not viewed kindly in some quarters. Prejudices remained and interaction was limited to daily tasks. Some used pejorative terms to describe each other: the ex-FAB described the PMPA as “bushmen”, while the latter described the ex-FAB as mujeris (little dogs).[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Burundian soldiers, Nairobi, August 2016.Hide Footnote

Moreover, the ex-FAB silently resented the glass ceiling imposed by the political-military readjustment of the officer corps and the ultra-quick promotion of ex-PMPA officers who had neither their military experience nor level of education.[fn]Some ex-FAB officers preferred to leave the army rather than serve under the command of ex-PMPA officers. Senior ex-FAB officers who stayed complain they have less chance of promotion than ex-PMPA members. Crisis Group interviews, demobilised ex-combatant, Brussels; soldiers, Nairobi, August 2016.Hide Footnote Members of the National Liberation Forces who joined the army in small numbers after the 2008 agreement do not seem to have found their place in the institution. Some have even felt discouraged enough to leave it.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, FNL members, Nairobi, Brussels, June 2016.Hide Footnote

Repression is currently carried out by special units within the security services, whose chains of command are short and parallel to the official hierarchy.

In addition, unification of command was more theoretical than real. Conscious of being incorporated into an institution they did not control, unlike the police force and the intelligence service, the ex-FDD created a parallel hierarchy. The official military chain of command was short-circuited by their own network, which led up to Adolphe Nshimirimana and the presidency. This posed problems in terms of discipline, promotion and personnel management. Some soldiers that formed part of the parallel system treated the official hierarchy and discipline with disdain, knowing they were covered in high places and confident of their promotion. This situation led to a lack of transparency in management of grades and even to denials of access to training.[fn]Most officer promotions were not decided by the army personnel department. “Why go on a training course when promotion depends on political criteria?”, a soldier wondered. Crisis Group interview, Nairobi, August 2016.Hide Footnote In addition, it subjected the army to a hierarchy that was unofficial, partisan but known to all.

This parallel command structure further politicised officers and harmed team spirit.[fn]The politicisation of the FDN was one of the threats identified in the national defence policy. “Politique nationale de défense”, defence and veterans’ affairs ministry, Bujumbura, June 2013, p. 15.Hide Footnote Before he was killed, General Adolphe Nshimirimana occupied a strategic position at the crossroads of the presidency, the security sector, trafficking networks, the Imbonerakure and veterans of the CNDD/FDD gathered in the Nonoka Association. He was therefore a mainstay of the parallel command system that is at the heart of the government’s current repressive apparatus and that affects all the security forces: the army, the police force and the intelligence service.[fn]His name constantly comes up in relation to the trafficking of minerals, ivory and arms. Crisis Group interviews, soldiers, police officers, civil society members, Brussels, Nairobi, Bujumbura, May and August 2016.Hide Footnote Repression is currently carried out by special units within the security services, whose chains of command are short and parallel to the official hierarchy.[fn]“Répression aux dynamiques génocidaires”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

Although integration allowed the formation of a new army, the latter has always suffered from a lack of cohesion and rampant politicisation.[fn]Several eye-witness accounts describe a daily reality that bore no resemblance to the image of unity communicated by Burundian soldiers to international partners. It was in the interest of the military and army reform program managers to develop a narrative that enhanced the new military institution’s cohesion. “We told our foreign partners what they wanted to hear”. Crisis Group interviews, soldiers, Nairobi and Brussels, August 2016.Hide Footnote The success of integration was wrongly interpreted as a guarantee of reconciliation, unification and fraternisation. Peaceful coexistence of yesterday’s enemies was not synonymous with unification and cohesion of the institution, notably at the command level.

B. Clientelism as a Mode of Governance

Since 2005, the dual attitude displayed by the government, anxious to continue the integration and reform policies that allowed the army to participate in peacekeeping missions, while also promoting its former colleagues from the guerrilla war and encouraging criminal behaviour, has strongly disrupted the internal functioning of the army.

In addition to resorting to traditional clientelism toward the officer corps (promotions, postings abroad, etc.), the government bribes them and plays on their regional divisions. Authorities take care to respect ethnic balance in the military high command as well as within the government, while at the same time ensuring the loyalty of Tutsi appointees, who are considered to be “bit players”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, soldier, Nairobi, August 2016.Hide Footnote By integrating part of the command into its clientelist network, the presidency has bypassed the power-sharing framework in the army. Several former Burundian armed forces (ex-FAB) officers, driven by regionalism, opportunism or greed, play the government’s game. This politicisation of part of the high command goes against the principle of political neutrality set out in the National Defence Force’s founding document.[fn]Law n°1/019, op. cit., Article 43.Hide Footnote

The failed coup in May 2015 highlighted cases of duplicity and treason within the high command. The pressure of the intelligence service, the latent divisions among soldiers and the use of some as informers led to collective paranoia in military circles.

For example, although all Burundians in the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) follow the news in their country on social media, self-censorship is required and morale is at a low ebb.[fn]Crisis Group interview, soldier, Nairobi, August 2016.Hide Footnote The presence of informers in the battalions, confirmed by Burundian blue helmets, provokes fear and suspicion.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Burundian army officer, Nairobi, August 2016; soldier, Bangui, November 2016.Hide Footnote This results in rumours about senior officers, which confirm or raise questions about their loyalty to the government.

The clientelist relations between the high command and the government allows the latter to maintain the appearance of Arusha in the army. The ethnic balance is observed in the AMISOM command and the army general staff.[fn]The wave of appointments to senior posts in November 2015 respected the principle of parity. Crisis Group interview, army officer, Nairobi, May 2016. Decree n°100/95 of 5 November 2015 on the appointment of senior officials to the defence and veterans’ affairs ministry and the general staff of the National Defence Force.Hide Footnote After a parliamentary study on the composition of the army in 2008, the parliament again examined the subject and visited military units from November 2015 to February 2016. There has been no official communication about its conclusions.

But power sharing in the army is openly questioned at several levels. The prevailing tacit consensus at the summit of the military hierarchy regarding sharing the command between a minister and chief of staff from different camps was broken by the appointment of the current defence minister after the failed coup in 2015. Although he is a Tutsi, he is from the CNDD-FDD rather than the ranks of the ex-FAB and is a civilian (judge). The government has abandoned the principle of balanced appointments (one ex-FAB and one ex-PMPA) at the highest level of the army.

The climate of terror and ethnic polarisation that reigns in the security services means that finding Tutsi recruits might become a challenge.

Moreover, the demographic situation works against the ex-FAB, therefore raising questions about the durability of the agreement in the army. Older than the integrated rebels, they are not replaced by other Tutsis when they retire.[fn]Crisis Group interview, soldier, Nairobi, August 2016. On 31 December 2016, 300 ex-FAB soldiers, mainly Tutsi, were forcibly retired. “Au Burundi, 300 militaires mis à la retraite”, Deutsche Welle, 4 January 2017.Hide Footnote The ex-FAB are very concerned about this process and have complained about the emergence of an army command that no longer corresponds to the Arusha Agreement and will not be able to correspond to it in the future. The climate of terror and ethnic polarisation that reigns in the security services means that finding Tutsi recruits might become a challenge. Meanwhile, the government decided to replace the 50/50 quota with a 40 (Tutsi) /60 (Hutu) quota for army recruits as from 2016.[fn]“FDN : des quotas contre génocide et coups d’Etat”, Iwacu, 8 February 2017.Hide Footnote

This historic politicisation of the army (it has always been that way in Burundi), combined with the attempted coup of May 2015, which revealed the soldiers’ loyalties, left a hard core of officers loyal to President Nkurunziza in strategic positions. These old CNDD-FDD colleagues from the armed struggle are now fighting their former, now dissident, colleagues from the bush.[fn]General Evariste Ndayishimiye is a typical example. With a successful track record in the bush, he was able to climb the ladder in Nkurunziza’s system, first occupying the post of interior minister and posts abroad before becoming secretary general of the governing party in 2016.Hide Footnote

C. The Burundian Army’s International Policy in Jeopardy

The current crisis has gradually raised questions about the status and advantages acquired by the Burundian army since 2004. Subjected to a massive reduction in manpower at the end of the civil war, the National Defence Force has certainly been pampered by the government but its involvement in peacekeeping missions has been its real lifeline and has turned it into a privileged institution in this poor country. However, the government’s hard-line policies are potentially undermining this stabilising effect.

Making the army the showcase of the peace process allowed the government to develop a self-promoting discourse for its international partners, praise the success of Burundi’s approach to consolidating peace and reduce the UN’s presence in the country, perceived as too intrusive.[fn]Nina Wilén, David Ambrosetti, Gérard Birantamije, “Sending peacekeepers abroad, sharing power at home: Burundi in Somalia”, Journal of Eastern African Studies, 9 March 2015.Hide Footnote By becoming the best example of the Arusha Agreement, the army improved its image and status and obtained major advantages as a result. But it was especially its participation in peacekeeping missions that brought new advantages: professionalisation, new financial resources for both the military and the government, posts in international agencies, etc. With its participation in AMISOM starting in 2007, the government discovered a strategy to reduce poverty within the army.

As with previous governments, those who came to power in 2005 were aware of the need to ensure soldiers’ welfare. Army members received a pay increase in 2006, social benefits (mortgages at preferential rates, installation of basic infrastructure at new properties, free health care, etc.) and generous promotions (inflation of the officer corps) all of which played a key role in the success of integration.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, demobilised ex-combatant, Brussels, and soldier, Nairobi, August 2016. Crisis Group telephone interview, security sector reform actor in Burundi, June 2016.Hide Footnote However, the government’s lack of financial resources made it impossible to avoid social tension within the armed forces (for example, in 2009, on the issue of housing allocations).[fn]Crisis Group interview, soldier, Nairobi, August 2016.Hide Footnote

From 2007, participation in AMISOM eased the shock of demobilisation/restructuring and reduced social discontent in a poor army. While a new wave of demobilisation was in the offing, the government became involved in Somalia and suspended staff cuts to the armed forces. The Burundian army currently comprises about 25,000 men, including 5,000 (a fifth) deployed in Somalia.[fn]At the time of writing this report, there were 5,432 Burundians within AMISOM.Hide Footnote This involvement has allowed a substantial increase in wages ($800 per month in Somalia compared to $40 in Burundi). The duration of the mission means that nearly all members of the Burundian army have completed a tour of duty in Somalia (some are even in Somalia for a second time).[fn]Because of the deductions made by the government, the real wages of soldiers on mission are about $500-$600. Crisis Group interview, soldier, Nairobi, August 2016. This mission is ten years old this year.Hide Footnote Moreover, the death in service benefit is $50,000 to the nominated beneficiary. In Gitega, Burundi’s second largest city, AMISOM veterans have built a new residential district.

The emergence of a low-intensity conflict in Burundi contradicts the army’s role as a ‘peacekeeping force’ in other conflicts.

In addition to wage increases for the armed forces, participation in peacekeeping missions opened up new career prospects at the international level.[fn]Former President Buyoya was the first head of MISMA and was appointed to the post of the AU’s high representative in Mali in 2012; the coup participant Major General Cyrille Ndayirukiye was appointed director of the Eastern Africa Standby Force (East Brigade) in Nairobi; late General Athanase Kararuza was deputy chief of MISCA in the Central African Republic; General Silas Ntirwurirwa was appointed as commander of AMISOM; and General Kabisa was appointed to a post in the East Brigade.Hide Footnote Other benefits have included military training and contributions to the government budget. The Burundian armed forces have received pre-deployment training, mainly, although not only, through the American program African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance (ACOTA); the government gets around $200 from the wages of each soldier involved in the mission to Somalia, in principle to pay for equipment and other military expenditure, a normal procedure for peacekeeping missions.[fn]Crisis Group correspondence, multilateral organisation official, March 2017.Hide Footnote

To maximise the return on investment, both political and financial, of participation in peacekeeping, the government offered its services for several missions (Mali, Central African Republic). The Burundian security forces have taken part in the African Union Mission in the Central African Republic (MISCA) and the UN mission that followed (MINUSCA). Participation in peacekeeping operations has become an official policy, as part of the National Defence Force’s missions.[fn]Participation in multilateral organisations’ peacekeeping missions is part of the National Defence Force’s five missions as defined in the national defence policy. “Politique nationale de défense”, op. cit. In addition to MINUSCA and AMISOM, Burundi has participated in UNAMID, UNOCI and MINUSTAH with up to 50 men per mission.Hide Footnote

The current crisis has led to a withdrawal of international assistance and to strong questioning of the Burundian army’s participation in peacekeeping missions. The emergence of a low-intensity conflict in Burundi contradicts the army’s role as a “peacekeeping force” in other conflicts.[fn]Nina Wilén, Gérard Birantamije and David Ambrosetti, “Is Burundi still a credible peacekeeper?”, The Washington Post, 23 May 2015.Hide Footnote

From the beginning of the crisis, the main suppliers of military cooperation retired.[fn]Tensions between Western military cooperation partners (U.S., France, Netherlands, and Belgium) and the Burundian government first appeared following the Burundian army’s brutal response to the attack on Cibitoke at the start of 2015. Relations between these partners subsequently deteriorated. “Ecoutons ce trop bruyant départ des instructeurs militaires de l’armée burundaise”, Iwacu, 22 April 2015; “US suspends Burundi peacekeeping training over protests”, Reuters, 23 May 2015. China did not follow the same path. “La Chine octroie des engins de travaux à l’armée burundaise”, RTNB, 8 July 2016.Hide Footnote American authorities suspended the ACOTA training program, which had already been reduced after a significant number of troops and officers benefited from it. Dutch authorities suspended most of their security sector development program, which was the largest bilateral military cooperation program from a financial point of view.[fn]This program began in 2010, was due to last eight years, cost €20 million and included three components (police, army and governance). Only the governance component is still active. This program provided training on the negotiated management of public space and on political neutrality and funded “ethics competitions” between police stations on the legal use of coercion in March 2015. Footnote While civil society organisations have launched a campaign on social media for the return of Burundian soldiers from peacekeeping missions (bringbackoursoldiers), the UN and the European Union (EU) are contesting Burundi’s participation.

After several months of bitter discussions […] Burundi threatened to withdraw its troops if a satisfactory means of payment could not be found.

The EU funds the wages of AMISOM soldiers, with the AU acting as intermediary. Since January 2016, the EU has paid $800 per month per soldier (previously $1,028), of which the governments of the countries contributing troops have decided the amount paid to their soldiers.[fn]Paul D. Williams, “Paying for AMISOM: Are Politics and Bureaucracy Undermining the AU’s Largest Peace Operation?”, International Peace Institute, 11 January 2017.Hide Footnote The Burundian government paid its troops $800 before January 2016, retaining $200 to cover general costs. The participation of the Burundian army in the mission brought $52 million per year to the armed forces and $13 million to the government budget. In March 2016, the EU decided that Burundi’s failure to comply with the Cotonou agreement, which sets out the principles and modalities for part of European aid, forbad these payments and asked the AU to find a way of paying Burundian soldiers deployed under AMISOM directly without going through the government. After several months of bitter discussions, in a letter to the AU Commission on 8 December, Burundi threatened to withdraw its troops if a satisfactory means of payment could not be found.

In January 2017, it seemed that a compromise had been found according to which payments would be paid to soldiers through the intermediary of a commercial bank and not through the government.[fn]“Burundi, AU resolve AMISOM pay dispute”, Africanews, 16 February 2017.Hide Footnote Burundi’s threats clearly worked, probably because of AMISOM’s importance to the AU and the EU. If the new arrangement is confirmed, it will bring some fresh air to both the Burundian army and government because the latter will still be in a position to deduct a proportion of the wages paid by the EU to AMISOM troops.[fn]Crisis Group telephone interview, diplomat, 27 March 2017.Hide Footnote

However, Burundi’s participation in peacekeeping missions is subjected to greater vigilance and thorough examination. Some Burundian personnel have seen their candidacies to posts with AMISOM and MINUSCA rejected and others, already deployed, have been repatriated.[fn]The candidates were three majors whose participation in the repression in Burundi in 2015 was pointed out by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. The most recent officer to be expelled was a lieutenant colonel. “Trois hommes avertis en valent beaucoup”, Iwacu, 2 February 2016; “Le lieutenant-colonel Alfred Mayuyu renvoyé de la MINUSCA par l’ONU”, Radio publique africaine (RPA), 22 August 2016. Crisis Group interview, army officer, Nairobi, August 2016.Hide Footnote This policy was intensified when the entire contingent of Burundian police officers on duty with MINUSCA (280 men) was sent home.[fn]“L’ONU met un terme au mandat des policiers burundais, accusés d’exactions”, Agence France-Presse, 4 June 2016.Hide Footnote

IV. The Fate of the Army Dependent on the Future of the Country

Before 2015, the Burundian army appeared to symbolise the country’s reconstruction after the civil war and constituted an essential element in the Western powers’ plan to train and fund African armies for peacekeeping operations on the continent. Since April 2015, a largely predictable political crisis has led to desertions, exposed historic divisions within the army and provoked opposition to its participation in international peacekeeping missions. Training on peacekeeping has slightly professionalised an army that includes an old guard and former rebels and its neutrality during the riots in 2015 showed the willingness of some officers to remain outside the political battles. However, this policy of transforming the armed forces has been frustrated by a lack of cohesion, parallel command structures and the clientelism practised by a kleptocratic and violent regime.

The resolution of the crisis in the armed forces requires a political settlement to which loyalist and rebel officers should be associated. But so far, all attempts to mediate have failed and there is no dialogue between the opposition and the government, which is hostile to the very idea of negotiations. Therefore, despite several attempts at mediation by Benjamin Mkapa in 2016 and 2017, the government still refuses to meet and negotiate with members of the opposition for whom national arrest warrants have been issued. As the prospects of dialogue between the opposition and government diminish, given the persistence of the political crisis, there is no clear solution to the crisis in the army. Consequently, the question has to be posed as to what will be the long-term impact of this situation on the military institution: could the neutralisation of the government’s opponents in the army destabilise it by provoking a violent reaction or succeed and end in the “quiet decline” of the National Defence Force?[fn]Crisis Group interview, army officer, Nairobi, August 2016.Hide Footnote

In the context of the failed coup of May 2015 and failed mediation, several scenarios are possible for Burundi: a new attempt at destabilisation leading to a relatively rapid change in government, or the disintegration of command structures and a civil war; or the stagnation and deterioration of the armed forces in the same way as the country as a whole.

If the idea spreads among the military that Pierre Nkurunziza’s continuance in power and the government’s hard-line attitude are prejudicial to their interests, some of them could be tempted into a new coup. The deterioration of their economic and social situation combined with the fear of physical elimination could push them into taking the plunge, as in May 2015. Some former Armed Political Parties and Movements officers share these concerns and feel that current policies compromise their future. They might also therefore participate in a new coup attempt.

The combination of targeted eliminations and buying off some officers could reduce opponents to a minority that would have no other choice but to keep quiet or go into exile.

The weakening of the political agreement in the security sector is leading to the re-emergence of divisions and resentments that had been put to one side but had certainly not disappeared. Consequently, a mutiny following on from further arrests of ex-Burundian armed force members, another murder of a senior army officer or a conflict with intelligence service agents or police officers cannot be excluded. The spontaneity of such a mutiny, which could only be partial because of the political and ethnic divisions within the army, would pave the way to many scenarios – from surprise victory to defeat due to a lack of a critical mass.

The policy of neutralising opponents in the army might also succeed. The combination of targeted eliminations and buying off some officers could reduce opponents to a minority that would have no other choice but to keep quiet or go into exile, like civil society and political opponents of the third term. The wave of defections that is underway could become stronger and the army could be completely purged of its anti-third term elements. The latter could join the networks of resistance abroad but a united and strong force on the borders of the country is currently not on the cards because of the divisions between opposition factions and the lack of external support.

The army would then cease to be a pocket of resistance to the power of President Nkurunziza and his circle. The National Defence Force (FDN) would not disintegrate but would enter a phase of decline because of the flight of its most experienced members, the suppression of foreign support, continued politicisation, the reduction of internationalisation and the government’s budgetary constraints. Poor and weak, it would no longer be a danger to the government, which would concentrate the remaining military resources in a few trusty units such as the Special Brigade for Protection of Institutions. The strategic objectives of the FDN and the plan to make it a “loyal, professional, prosperous, modern and republican army” would be no more than a memory.[fn]Sectoral policy 2011-2015, defence and veterans’ affairs ministry, p. 3. All the planning documents show this vision of the FDN and emphasise the resources necessary to turn it into a professional force. Official report on defence, Bujumbura, February 2014; sectoral strategy 2013-2016, defence and veterans’ affairs ministry.Hide Footnote Such an outcome was known to be a risk when national defence policy was being decided and has occurred elsewhere under many authoritarian African governments.[fn]“Politique nationale de défense”, op. cit., p. 15.Hide Footnote

Despite the government’s intransigence, political dialogue between the government and the opposition remains indispensable.[fn]Crisis Group Reports, Elections in Burundi: Moment of Truth?, op. cit.; and Burundi: A Dangerous Third Term, op. cit.; and Briefing, Burundi: Peace Sacrificed?, op. cit.Hide Footnote The army’s divisions make these recommendations urgent, all the more so because the loss of external financial support threatens to accelerate its deterioration.

As far as possible, it is necessary to encourage the exiled armed groups to continue on the political path and work to unify the opposition.

The multilateral organisations that are looking for a solution to the Burundian crisis, including the new president of the African Union Commission and Burundi’s donors must clearly tell the Burundian authorities that their intransigence, repression and violence are unacceptable. As far as possible, it is necessary to encourage the exiled armed groups to continue on the political path and work to unify the opposition.

The participation of Burundian forces in peacekeeping missions will probably continue, following the arrangement reached with the AU regarding AMISOM. This entails dangers that are already evident; the risk of including members of militias in the units deployed, and the risk that an army that is increasingly under the government’s control will be involved in the future in human rights abuses, the same way as the police and the intelligence service. All those who support and fund this participation must be vigilant and increase their vetting efforts. They must be ready to replace the Burundian army contingent in international missions if its behaviour continues to deteriorate.

All international training should henceforth be conditional on the government’s willingness to democratise and start a dialogue with the opposition in exile. The risk of weakening the army in the long term because of the withdrawal of external support is much less of a problem for the country than the reorganisation of the army in accordance with the government’s authoritarian plans while international partners close their eyes.

V. Conclusion

The crisis of the Burundian regime has quickly become a crisis of the Burundian army. This fact alone raises questions about the success of the “new Republican Army” project much promoted by the Burundian authorities and praised by their partners. It highlights the limits of training in changing the way institutions operate and in installing democratic governance in the security sector. While the Burundian army changed following the Arusha Agreement of 2000, pernicious links between the government and the army remained.

Nairobi/Brussels, 5 April 2017

Appendix A: Map of Burundi

Map of Burundi. International Crisis Group/Kjell Olsson, January 2016. Based on UN map no. 4048, Rev. 8 (May 2015).
Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza embraces his South African counterpart Jacob Zuma as he departs after an Africa Union-sponsored dialogue on 27 February 2016. REUTERS/Evrard Ngendakumana
Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza embraces his South African counterpart Jacob Zuma as he departs after an Africa Union-sponsored dialogue on 27 February 2016. REUTERS/Evrard Ngendakumana
Briefing 122 / Africa

The African Union and the Burundi Crisis: Ambition versus Reality

To reverse Burundi’s slide toward a devastating social and humanitarian emergency – as ethnically-charged rhetoric worsens and refugees flee to neighbouring countries – the African Union needs to overcome its internal divisions, fix a so far incoherent response and facilitate a negotiated settlement between the government and the opposition.

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I. Overview

African leaders’ January 2016 decision not to endorse deployment of a 5,000-strong African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi (MAPROBU), as the African Union (AU) Peace and Security Council (PSC) recommended, revealed a wide rift between member states and the AU Commission (AUC) on how to address the crisis. The dispute seriously damaged AU credibility and showed that its ambition to prevent and resolve conflict does not match its capabilities, in part due to uncertainty about the extent of the AUC’s role. It also exposed procedural flaws in the PSC’s decision-making process. The incoherent response illustrates the limits of AUC and PSC freedom to act without the full support of leaders and the lack of coordination between Addis Ababa and the African UN Security Council members (the A3). If the AU is to fulfil its aim of “silencing the guns” on the continent, the AUC and member states must resolve these issues.

Map of Burundi. CRISIS GROUP

The crisis was sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s 2015 decision to seek a third term, which triggered mass protests, an attempted coup, armed opposition attacks and a brutal crackdown that has fuelled a cycle of violence in which as many as 1,115 have already died, according to the Armed Conflict Location and Event Data project. The confrontation has settled into low-intensity warfare characterised by targeted assassinations, disappearances and torture and the government’s increasing resort to ethnically-charged rhetoric reminiscent of that preceding the mass atrocities of the 1990s. More than 300,000 have fled to neighbouring countries, and a further 108,000 are estimated to be internally displaced. An estimated 4.6 million of the eleven million population need food aid. With both urban and rural economies slowing and imposition of an austerity budget (an 18 per cent decrease on 2015), Burundi is sliding toward a devastating social and humanitarian emergency.

The AU and international partners have failed to halt the crisis. Nkurunziza has exploited divisions within and between the AU, the UN and the East African Community (EAC), the sub-regional organisation charged to lead the continental response. This enables his government to rebuff lacklustre EAC attempts to bring it to negotiations and has stalled the deployment of AUC-authorised human rights and military observers, as well as UN Security Council-sanctioned police. Lack of a shared analysis of the crisis’s nature fuels disunity.

The AU itself is divided. A majority of member states favour a less confrontational approach than the interventionist-inclined AUC, which together with the PSC, to avoid further embarrassment, has now shifted focus from Burundi, silencing needed warning voices. The crisis is political at its core, and only a negotiated settlement between government and opposition can end it. That requires re-examination of the 2000 Arusha accord, the power-sharing peace agreement of which the AU is a guarantor that ended the twelve-year civil war. Unless the AU, EAC and wider international community act in concert, it is a distant prospect.

To engage the government and opposition in a genuine and inclusive dialogue:

  • The AU, EAC and UN should immediately form a contact group to align positions and inject new impetus into the EAC-led mediation, whose leader, President Yoweri Museveni (Uganda), must become more personally engaged, as requested by the facilitator, Benjamin Mkapa.
  • The AU should expedite deployment of the 200 authorised human rights and military observers and work with the UN to quickly agree on and disburse the financial, technical, logistical and other assistance needed for the deployment.
  • The AU should immediately implement the decision to impose targeted sanctions, per the 17 October 2015 PSC communiqué, against those blocking negotiations, inciting violence and/or propagating hate speech.
  • The AU and European Union (EU) should change financing for the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) to pay Burundian soldiers directly, rather than permitting the government to keep a portion.

To strengthen AU crisis response capabilities:

  • Member states should meet their financial obligations so the AUC can be staffed adequately to carry out its mandate.
  • The PSC should engage consistently in finding political solutions, meeting monthly on Burundi, for example, to evaluate the security situation and discuss observer reports. Member states should engage fully on communiqués and ensure they have ownership of decisions. This requires adequate staffing of Addis Ababa embassies and clear communication channels with them.
  • AUC, PSC and A3 should work more closely together – including PSC observer status for the A3 – to ensure common analysis and more coherent responses.

II. The AU in Principle and Practice

A. Member States’ Commitment

Since its 2002 inception, the AU has been increasingly active in preventing and resolving conflict in Africa, due in part to growing recognition the UN cannot manage crises alone and in part to the AU’s desire to lead.[fn]The 2015 UN High-level Independent Panel on Peace Operations report highlights the AU, urging intensified collaboration also with its sub-regional partners.Hide Footnote  The organisation’s Constitutive Act set promotion of peace, security and stability on the continent as a founding objective. To help meet it, the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) was created. It asserts AU primacy in peace and security on the continent and devolves jointly to the PSC and AUC chairperson power to “undertake peace-making and peace-building functions to resolve conflicts”.[fn]APSA consists of the PSC, Panel of the Wise, Continental Early Warning System, Africa Standby Force and Africa Peace Fund. Articles 7, 17 of the Protocol Relating to the Establishment of the PSC, and the AU and Regional Economic Communities/regional mechanisms Memorandum of Understanding (MoU).Hide Footnote

That ambition to “silence the guns” often outstrips action, however, is not surprising given resource constraints. The Peace and Security Department (PSD), charged with administering the fifteen-member PSC, the Continental Early Warning System (CEWS), the Panel of the Wise and other mediation activity, as well as four peace support operations, has just 64 regular staff positions, 26 of which were filled in 2015.[fn]The peace support operations are AMISOM, the Regional Cooperation Initiative for the Elimination of the Lord’s Resistance Army, the hybrid UN-AU Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) and the Multinational Joint Taskforce for the fight against Boko Haram. “APSA 2014 Assessment Study: Final Report”, AU, 27 April 2015, p. 14.Hide Footnote  Personnel constraints are due to perennial underfunding. Only $169,833,340 of its estimated $416.9 million 2016 budget derives from member-state contributions, the rest from foreign partners, a reliance that compromises AU ownership of its agenda and reflects member states’ lack of commitment.[fn]Decision no.: Assembly/AU/Dec. 577(XXV). The budget does not include peace support operations. Member-state contributions mostly fund operational costs; 92 per cent of the AU’s 2016 program activities are expected to be funded by donors. “APSA 2014”, op. cit., p. 14.Hide Footnote  At the end of 2015, they had paid just 68 per cent of assessed contributions; only nineteen fully met their obligations. In July 2015, leaders pledged to fund 25 per cent of AU peace and security operations. A year later they adopted a mechanism that in theory should generate $400 million per year to help pay for AU missions, but it remains to be seen if it will be honoured.[fn]“2017 Budget Overview Paper”, AUC, 5 March 2016. “Declaration on self-reliance”, Assembly/AU/Decl.5(XXV), 15 July 2015. “The African Union Adopts the AU Peace Fund”, AUC press release, 18 July 2016.Hide Footnote

The uninspiring choices to replace AUC Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is but one sign members may not actually want a strong AU. Their reluctance to cede the chairperson and PSC influence, despite vesting significant formal authority in them at the AU’s founding, is consistent with the Constitutive Act’s emphasis on national sovereignty but severely limits conflict response capacity.[fn]Some member states were dissatisfied with the quality of choices, so no candidate was able to secure the required two-thirds majority. Article 4 sets out the AU’s guiding principles, including 4(g) “non-interference by any Member State in the internal affairs of another”.Hide Footnote

B. The AU’s Principles in the Burundi Context

Beyond its commitment to preventing and resolving conflict, the AU also aspires to promote constitutional democracy and stop mass atrocities. The Burundi crisis challenges both principles, exposing inconsistency in interpreting and enforcing the Constitutive Act. Prohibition of unconstitutional changes of government (Article 4(p)) has origins in the 1990s’ broad shift from one-party and military rule to multi-party democracy. It is the only founding principle backed by a specific penalty: suspension from participation in AU activities.[fn]Articles 4(h) and 4(p) of the Constitutive Act respectively refer to prevention of mass atrocities and prohibition of unconstitutional changes of government. Mulugeta Gebrehiwot and Alex de Waal, “African Politics, African Peace”, The World Peace Foundation, July 2016. Solomon Dersso, “Unconstitutional Changes of Government and Unconstitutional Practices in Africa”, The World Peace Foundation, June 2016.Hide Footnote  The AU usually has condemned and, if asked, provided military support, when faced with coups, as in Mali and Guinea Bissau (2012) and Central African Republic and Egypt (2013).

However, what is unconstitutional change of government is not well defined. It includes an incumbent’s refusal to relinquish power after a free and fair election, but it is not clear if that extends to amendment or manipulation of the constitution to prevent change in government, as arguably in Burundi. Member states, with their respect for national sovereignty and preference for incumbency, tend to err on the side of the status quo. The commission, as guardian of AU norms and principles, tends to lean toward democratic transitions, but its position is not consistent. Ambivalence was further compounded by uncertainty around the circumstances in Burundi: whether Nkurunziza was eligible for a third-term was not cut and dry; the constitutional court, one of whose justices claims was manipulated and intimidated, concluded his first term did not count because he was appointed, not elected, and ruled he could stand again.[fn]The AUC did not condemn Rwanda’s or Congo Brazzaville’s constitutional changes in 2015. Some donors believed Nkurunziza’s case had validity. Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomat, April 2015; Judge Sylvere Nimpagaritse, Brussels, May 2016.Hide Footnote

The AU also upholds Article 4(h), “right of the Union to intervene in a Member State … in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity”. Member states are historically reluctant to approve military or other action against a government, even if mass atrocities are being committed, as in Darfur (2004-2005) or South Sudan (2013-2014). The unprecedented PSC decision to invoke 4(h) for MAPROBU can be seen as a test of the AU’s graduation from the principle of non-interference, the bedrock of the AU’s predecessor, the Organisation of African Unity, to that of non-indifference.[fn]Paul D. Williams, “The African Union’s Conflict Management Capabilities”, Council on Foreign Relations, October 2011. An AU official said the AUC chairperson viewed the deployment decision as such a test. Crisis Group interview, Addis Ababa, 31 January 2016.Hide Footnote

III. The Initial Response

Dissent turned to defiance in March 2015 when demonstrators took to the streets in Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital. In the balance was not just the future of President Nkurunziza, but also the survival of the 2000 Arusha peace agreement, which included detailed power-sharing provisions. Protests increased in scale and frequency in April and May following Nkurunziza’s decision to stand for re-election, leading to violent clashes with security forces.[fn]This briefing focuses on AU and wider international responses to the crisis. For a full evaluation of the internal politics, see Crisis Group Africa Report N°224, Elections in Burundi: Moment of Truth, 17 April 2015; and Briefing N°111, Burundi: Peace Sacrificed, 29 May 2015.Hide Footnote

A. Public Diplomacy

Some praised the AU for its early intervention and strong position as the crisis began, with Dlamini-Zuma setting the tone and direction.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, U.S. officials, Addis Ababa, 29 January 2016; EU officials, Brussels, 29 February 2016; Addis Ababa, 19 April 2016. One official even called the AU’s response up until the 17 December communiqué “a model of AU diplomacy”.Hide Footnote  As tensions rose in March 2015, the AU political affairs commissioner and then the chairperson visited Bujumbura and called on the president to adhere to the constitution and Arusha, as well as for dialogue to ensure a credible election process and resolve disagreements over the third term. At first, the PSC and PSD appeared not to adopt the same tough stance, but as the situation deteriorated, positions began to align, and both the commission and the PSC engaged actively and concertedly.[fn]Crisis Group interview, UN official, Addis Ababa, 23 March 2016; “AU Commission Chairperson concludes Burundi visit with cautious optimism”, press release, AUC, 27 March 2015. The PSC urged stakeholders to respect the pending constitutional court decision on Nkurunziza’s eligibility, while Zuma dismissed the court’s findings. Zuma, Dlamini (DlaminiZuma). “Other than the #Burundi Court, all interpretations of the constitution & #Arusha Agreements are clear that there shouldn't be a third term.” 7 May 2015, 5:43 p.m. Tweet. Crisis Group interview, UN official, Addis Ababa, 15 March 2016. See also AU PSC communiqué, PSC/PR/COMM.(DI), 28 April 2015. Zuma issued nineteen press statements between March and December 2015. The PSC discussed Burundi at least monthly from March 2015.Hide Footnote

The AUC unprecedentedly refused to send a monitoring team because conditions for free and fair elections did not exist.[fn]AU communiqué, 28 June 2015.Hide Footnote  Many usual preventative diplomacy tools – high-level delegations, a special envoy, human rights and military observers, sanctions and investigation into human rights violations – were utilised, but to little effect, in part because without member states’ full political support they were not wholeheartedly deployed. The government was defiant, making concessions but then stalling or reneging on implementation.[fn]The AU has been unable to conclude an MoU with the government for 200 human rights and military observers. Only 42 have been deployed, and they cannot operate freely. In its 17 October 2015 communiqué, the PSC threatened sanctions but the AUC has yet to draw up a list of targets, let alone attempt to enforce them. The government made commitments for inclusive dialogue with the opposition only to go back on them or set unrealistic conditions, including refusing to deal with the opposition Conseil national pour le respect de l’accord d’Arusha pour la paix et la réconciliation au Burundi et de l’Etat de droit (CNARED) coalition. Yolande Bouka, Nanjala Nyabola, “The Crisis in Burundi and the Apathy of International Politics”, Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung, April 2016.Hide Footnote

In accordance with the principle of subsidiarity that generally governs its cooperation with regional economic communities, the AU ceded primary responsibility for the crisis to the EAC. Initially, they worked closely: Zuma attended EAC summits, and the PSC endorsed EAC decisions, including President Museveni’s appointment as chief negotiator in July 2016.[fn]EAC communiqué, 6 July 2016.Hide Footnote  Engaged in his own contentious election, he delegated responsibility to Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga. As the crisis dragged on, it became clear the EAC-led dialogue was making no headway. But without consent of Museveni or the other regional leaders, the AU was unable to insert itself into the mediation process and had to settle for expressing concern about the slow pace and endorsing the EAC’s lacklustre efforts.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civil society actor, Addis Ababa, 11 December 2015; UN official, Nairobi, 23 March 2016. Also see PSC communiqué, PSC/PR/COMM.DLI, 17 October 2015.Hide Footnote

B. Private Diplomacy

One reason the AUC’s and PSC’s aggressive public postures have had limited success is that they have not been backed by persistent private diplomacy. Critics suggest they should have both engaged earlier at the lower levels and mobilised a high-level dialogue with interlocutors Nkurunziza trusted.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU and UN officials, Addis Ababa, 27-31 January 2016.Hide Footnote  Zuma could have personally engaged more with Nkurunziza and others. Foreign minister when South Africa helped broker Arusha, she arguably has a great stake in the AU’s resolution of the crisis. An official suggested she believed the intervention would demonstrate the organisation’s transition from a position of non-interference to one of non-indifference. Having failed in March 2015 to persuade Nkurunziza against a third term, however, she did not really try again.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU, EU officials, Addis Ababa, 9 December 2015, 31 January 2016. Once President Nkurunziza committed to standing, preventative diplomacy options narrowed.Hide Footnote

The AU also lacked consistent representation in Bujumbura, relying instead on ad hoc deployment of special envoys, high-level delegations and commission figures, including the chairperson. Following the recall of its outspoken special representative for Burundi and the Great Lakes, Boubacar Diarra, in April 2015, it had no emissary for three critical months as the crisis rapidly escalated.[fn]Nkurunziza requested Diarra’s recall because he opposed his third term bid. According to an AU official, the chairperson acquiesced because she hoped it would win favour with the president. Crisis Group interview, AU official, Addis Ababa, 31 January 2016.Hide Footnote

Diarra’s replacement, Ibrahima Fall, a former UN assistant Secretary-General for Human Rights and for Political Affairs, as well as special representative of the Secretary-General (SRSG) for the Great Lakes region, has had a more discrete presence in Bujumbura. While keeping lines of communication open with the government, however, he has been unable to conclude the MoU for the human rights and military observers and has not proactively engaged with influential actors from the country or region. More dynamic representation, backed by international consensus, might have been better able to advance AU decisions.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU and UN officials, Addis Ababa, 29-31 January 2016; Western diplomat, Addis Ababa, 15 March 2016.

IV. The 17 December Communiqué and its Aftermath

On 17 December 2015, the PSC issued a communiqué authorising a 5,000-strong African Prevention and Protection Mission (MAPROBU) to prevent deterioration of security, protect civilians and help create conditions needed for a credible inter-Burundian dialogue. It gave the government 96 hours to accept. If rebuffed, the PSC agreed, it would recommend that the Assembly of Heads of State and Government (the AU’s highest decision-making body) invoke Article 4(h) of the Constitutive Act, which allows intervention in cases of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.[fn]AU PSC communiqué, PSC/PR/COMM.(DLVX), 17 December 2015.Hide Footnote  This bold decision broke new ground in two respects: first, an ultimatum to a sitting president; secondly, invocation of Article 4(h). The Nkurunziza government quickly refused to admit foreign troops.[fn]“Burundi: We will not allow foreign troops to enter”, Al Jazeera, 21 December 2015.Hide Footnote

A. The Context for the Decision

Six days before the PSC communiqué, violence in Bujumbura intensified significantly. Reportedly, at least 87 were killed, some summarily executed, in intense fighting sparked by coordinated grenade attacks by armed opposition groups on military installations on 11 December. Observations from an African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) fact-finding mission, AU human rights observers’ reports and social and traditional media accounts directly influenced PSC decisions.[fn]“Burundi: 87 killed in worst violence since April coup attempt”, The Guardian, 12 December 2015. “Report of the Fact Finding Mission of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to Burundi”, ACHPR, May 2016. Crisis Group interviews, Addis Ababa 31 January; Brussels, 29 February 2016.Hide Footnote  There was strong belief in Addis Ababa, driven by the AUC but supported by a few key PSC members, that rapidly deteriorating security and grave human rights abuse warranted decisive action. With the 1994 Rwandan genocide in mind, the PSD hoped to demonstrate the AU would not stand idly by. “The communiqué made it clear that it considered the situation grave; it put Burundi on notice and sent a message to the world that the AU had done what it could”, an AU official said.[fn]Nigeria, Ethiopia, Algeria and to a lesser extent Uganda were strongly in favour of the PSD drafted communiqué. Crisis Group interviews, Addis Ababa, 25-31 January, 14-18 March 2016.Hide Footnote

B. Miscalculations and Missteps

The PSC intended the communiqué to freeze the crisis and force the government to negotiate.[fn]Crisis Group interview, 8 February 2016.Hide Footnote  While it arguably focused international attention, helping to curb the worst security force excesses and spurring Museveni to kick-start the stalled EAC mediation, it failed to engage Nkurunziza in an inclusive political dialogue with the opposition.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU officials, Addis Ababa, 27 January 2016; UN officials, New York, 9 February 2016.Hide Footnote  The government dismissed MAPROBU as an “invasion and occupation force”, shocking some in the AUC, which had been convinced it would grudgingly accept the mission. Burundi watchers said the AU lacked credible situational analysis and misread Nkurunziza’s character.[fn]“Burundi rejects African Union peacekeepers as ‘invasion force’”, Agence France-Presse, 20 December 2016. Crisis Group interviews, AU, UN officials, Western diplomats, Addis Ababa, 31 January, 16 March, 19 April 2016.Hide Footnote  AU, UN and Western officials called the PSC’s ultimatum a mistake and an insult.[fn]An official described it as an “extraordinary thing to do to a sovereign government”. The AUC chairperson informed the UN Secretary-General before Nkurunziza. Crisis Group interviews, Western diplomats, New York, 8 February 2016; AU, UN officials, Addis Ababa, 16 March 2016.Hide Footnote  It was, however, just one in a series of AUC and PSC missteps and miscalculations.

Article 4(h) touched a nerve with those member states whose democratic credentials and human rights records were criticised and feared it might one day be applied to them. Invoking that article, which sets a high bar – verification of war crimes, genocide or crimes against humanity – raised the stakes considerably, and the PSC left itself no other tool with which to ratchet up pressure on the government. Some PSC delegations did not understand the ramifications of its use or consult sufficiently with capitals.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU, UN, EU officials, Western diplomats, Addis Ababa, 25-31 January 2016.Hide Footnote  Shortcomings of PSC working practices were exposed. Unlike the UN Security Council, whose members draft resolutions, with one leading and consulting in varying degrees, the AUC mostly writes PSC communiqués, typically with little or no input from members. Meetings frequently leave scant time to discuss content; often there is no chance to work the outcomes of deliberations into the final text. As a result, the PSC tends not to buy sufficiently into its own resolutions. The 17 December communiqué was no exception.

The heavy PSC workload stretches often under-staffed Addis Ababa missions. Most ambassadors did not use the 24-hour silence period to clear the communiqué at home. Blindsided, some governments were unwilling to give wholehearted support. The AUC also neglected to confirm that Council members had briefed their governments in advance.[fn]An official said only about a third of member states sent the communiqué to capitals in the silence period. Crisis Group interview, Addis Ababa, 17 March 2016. South Africa’s international relations and cooperation department issued a statement on Burundi with no MAPROBU mention. Asked to clarify the stance, spokesperson Clayson Monyela said, “we support the AU position yes”. “South Africa expresses concern over the situation in Burundi”, press release, 18 December 2015; Monyela, Clayson (ClaysonMonyela). "@geoffreyyork We support the AU position yes.", 20 Dec 2015, 18:29 UTC. Tweet, @Clayson Monyela, 10.29am 20 December 2015. After dismissing use of force, Tanzanian Foreign Minister Augustine Mahiga announced MAPROBU support only in January. “Mahiga calls for talks to end the bloodshed”, The Citizen, 20 December 2015. “Consultations between [AUC] and Tanzania on the situation in Burundi”, AU press release, 8 January 2016. Crisis Group interviews, AU officials, Addis Ababa, 31 January, 16-17 March 2016.Hide Footnote  It had hoped the communiqué would spur bolder action, but the response was cautious. A sense of urgency and misplaced belief that others, including the UN, would follow the AU lead led to failure to give advance word to those called upon to endorse and assist MAPROBU. The absence of planning – no concept of operations or commitments from troop contributing countries – and Burundi’s rejection of an AU force, made it hard for the Security Council to give the anticipated backing.[fn]“We [the AU] can’t always back it up with action, but we can enable others”. Crisis Group interview, AU official, 9 December 2016. The Security Council merely “took note with interest” of the communiqué. Press statement, 19 December 2015. An AU official said the AUC subsequently believed the Council was the obstacle to deployment. Crisis Group interview, 29 January 2016; interviews, UN officials and Western diplomats, New York, 8-9 February 2016.Hide Footnote

C. Force Preparedness

The AUC did not intend to deploy MAPROBU immediately. Regardless of official statements, the East African Standby Force (EASF), expected to provide forces, was not ready, and without Burundi’s consent, the AU needed Security Council approval.[fn]In January 2015, the EASF was officially declared able to deploy within fourteen days with 90 days of supplies, but a Western diplomat estimated it would take at least six months to set up operation systems for a Burundi mission. Crisis Group interview, Addis Ababa, 26 January 2016. Use of force against a sovereign state is permitted only in self-defence or UN Charter Chapter VII authorisation. The AU communiqué requested such a Security Council resolution for MAPROBU. Paul D Williams, “The African Union’s Coercive Diplomacy in Burundi”, International Peace Institute Special Report, 18 December 2015.Hide Footnote  Finally, the AUC acknowledged that MAPROBU required considerable foreign financial and logistical support. It had been conceived primarily as a threat with which to push Nkurunziza into a genuine dialogue, rather than a tangible rapid reaction force, and he called the AU’s bluff.[fn]PSC Communiqué, op. cit. The AUC may also have wanted to use MAPROBU to push automatic use of UN assessed contributions to finance AU-led peace support missions. Crisis Group interviews, AU, UN, EU officials, Addis Ababa, 26-29 January 2016; New York, 8 February 2016.Hide Footnote

D. The AU Summit and the Decision Not to Deploy MAPROBU

The government’s refusal to accept MAPROBU meant the future of the stabilisation force rested with African heads of states due to meet at the biannual AU summit in Addis Ababa, 30-31 January 2016. Invoking Article 4(h) left the door open for unprecedented forcible deployment, if two thirds agreed the security situation was sufficiently grave. By then, violence had receded, but the AUC pressed on with a bruising approval process, exposing deep fault lines with member states concerned that the mission would violate Burundi’s sovereignty and impede dialogue. The AUC might have persuaded them to pressure Burundi to accept a more limited intervention force, but understaffed and underfunded, it lacked capacity for the political work needed to build consensus around deployment; some were unaware that was needed or naively confident a pared-down version would be endorsed. Nkurunziza’s emissaries travelled the continent, arguing the crisis was a case of relatively mild post-electoral violence now under control.[fn]The government and opposition dialled back confrontation prior to the summit. Crisis Group interviews, AU, UN officials, Addis Ababa, 16 March 2016. Solomon Dersso, “To intervene or not to intervene? An inside view of the AU’s decision-making on Article 4(h) and Burundi”, World Peace Foundation, February 2016. Crisis Group interviews, AU, EU officials, Western diplomat, Addis Ababa, 30-31 January, 17 March 2016. “Burundi reaffirms dialogue commitment”, Daily News, 16 January 2016; “SA presence in Burundi talks welcomed”, African News Agency, 22 January 2016.Hide Footnote

E. The AU High-level Delegation

Trying to keep MAPROBU alive, Peace and Security Commissioner Smail Chergui recommended the assembly send a senior delegation to Bujumbura to consult. This again laid bare divisions between member states and the AUC, which insisted deliberations focus solely on an inclusive intra-Burundian dialogue.[fn]Dersso, “To intervene?”, op. cit. The high-level delegation – presidents of Senegal, Gabon, Mauritania and South Africa, prime minister of Ethiopia – was in Burundi 25-26 February. The 29 January 2016 PSC communiqué limited the mission’s discussions to dialogue, PSC/AHG/COMM.3(DLXXI). A subsequent AUC statement widened the mandate to include MAPROBU. “The African Union appoints High-Level Delegation to Burundi”, 4 February 2016.Hide Footnote  It also revealed member-state disagreements. South African President Jacob Zuma, the delegation head, dominated proceedings and set the agenda. Pretoria was pivotal in mediation and peacekeeping during the civil war, and close ties between the African National Congress and Burundian National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), meant the president was sympathetic to Nkurunziza. Separate, contradictory communiqués, the first unilaterally released by Zuma, the second by the AUC with delegation-member support, reinforced an appearance of disarray.[fn]Crisis Group interview, African diplomat, Addis Ababa, 20 April 2016; “AU High Level Delegation to Burundi conclusion statement”, South African presidency, 27 February 2016; “Communiqué of the visit of the [AU] high level delegation to Burundi”, AU, 29 February 2016.Hide Footnote  The AU lost a major opportunity to insert itself into the mediation process.

F. The Fallout

Leaders’ failure to endorse MAPROBU severely damaged AU credibility, revealing the gap between ambition and capabilities. The 17 December communiqué was called “unrealistic” and “un-strategic”, and the military force row distracted from dialogue.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Addis Ababa, 25-31 January; New York, 8-9 February; Nairobi 23-24 March 2016. “The Burundi Intervention that Wasn’t”, Foreign Policy (online), 2 February 2016; “Intervention that Never Was”, Africa Confidential, 5 February 2016. “African Union diplomacy fails to take off in Burundi. Literally and metaphorically”, UN Dispatch, 29 February 2016; African Union goes backwards on Burundi”, Daily Maverick, 31 January 2016.
Hide Footnote
 Invoking Article 4(h) divided member states. Some were adamant sovereignty trumps human rights; others did not share AUC analysis that Burundi was near to catastrophic violence. The AUC was seen to have over-stepped: one of its senior officials said, “we have embarrassed the continent”. Some member states, notably Egypt, dislike AUC influence over PSC decision-making, and many predict a push for member states to draft future measures. The AU lost any authority in Bujumbura and is marginalised in efforts to resolve the crisis.[fn]Gambia’s President Yahya Jammeh, for example, was clearly opposed to the use of force without consent; Tanzanian Foreign Minister Mahiga did not believe military intervention was warranted. Derrso, “To intervene or not?”, op. cit. Crisis Group interviews, AU, EU officials, African diplomats, Addis Ababa, 25-31 January, 17 March 2016; New York, 8 February 2016.Hide Footnote  Embarrassed by the failure of MAPROBU and other diplomatic attempts and faced with member-state indifference, the AUC and PSC appear to have lost impetus. Failing to act decisively, the AU sacrificed its moral authority to speak out about incumbents manipulating or eliminating constitutional term limits.

V. The Wider International Response

The AU response has been disappointing, but neither regional powers nor the UN fared better. Domestic considerations, power politics and historic allegiances, as well as antagonisms, have shaped Burundi’s neighbours’ hesitant response. At the UN, the divergent policies of Security Council members and divisions within and between the Council and Secretariat have thwarted attempts to find a solution. Institutional rivalries, coupled with the absence of a shared analysis, prevented a coordinated approach. The government exploited this disunity, playing the main actors – the AU, EAC and UN – off against one another.

A. Regional Dynamics

At the beginning of the crisis, a key concern was the legitimacy of Nkurunziza’s re-election attempt. Two allies, Tanzania’s President Jakaya Kikwete and South Africa’s President Zuma, cautioned him against standing. However, the EAC did not condemn the third-term bid – it would have been difficult for it to do so following the failed May 2015 coup attempt.[fn]Nina Wilén, “The rationales behind the EAC members’ response to the Burundi Crisis”, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs, Volume 17, Number 1, Winter/Spring 2016. “Tanzania’s Kikwete says Burundi should heed president term limit; risks regional tensions”, Mail & Guardian, 20 March 2016; “Zuma calls for Nkurunziza not to stand for a third term”, video, SABC Digital News, May 8 2015. A 31 May 2015 EAC communiqué stopped short of calling for Nkurunziza not to stand, insisting instead on postponing elections.Hide Footnote  For others, it was never a consideration. Uganda’s Museveni, in power for 29 years and having amended presidential term limits in 2005, was seeking a fifth mandate. President José Eduardo dos Santos has ruled Angola since 1979. Next door in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Joseph Kabila has been preparing his own attempt to extend his stay in office.

Zuma calls for Nkurunziza not to stand for third term.

Zuma Calls for Nkurunziza Not to Stand for Third Term

YouTube/SABC Digital News

Once Nkurunziza won the election, the third term became moot in the region and much of Africa. For many African leaders, especially those who fought long liberation struggles, incumbency is paramount. Factor in the special relationships of Nkurunziza and his party with many of them and their parties, and it is easy to see why he has not come under serious pressure.[fn]After the July 2015 summit, and aside from a half-hearted attempt to kick-start the inter-Burundian dialogue in December. EAC leaders did little and did not meet until March. For the U.S. and other Western countries, the third term remains a concern (see also Section V.B.). Sheltered by Tanzania during the civil war, the ruling CNDD-FDD has links to its security services. Zuma and Museveni assisted the settlement that ended the war and brought Nkurunziza to power. Crisis Group interviews, UN officials, Addis Ababa, 29 January, 15 March 2016.Hide Footnote  Rwanda is the exception, consistently calling for him to step down. It argues not that term extensions are inherently bad – President Kagame pushed through a constitutional change that allows him to keep office until 2034 – but that Burundi has not prospered under his rule. It is also alarmed by the rise of anti-Tutsi hate speech, similar to that used prior to the 1994 Rwandan genocide, and fears the Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda could gain a foothold. The UN and U.S., among others, have accused Rwanda of supporting Burundian armed opposition groups to weaken Nkurunziza. Distrust of Rwanda’s perceived destabilisation of the region, and its alleged assistance to the armed insurrection, have shaped the response of other neighbours and contribute to EAC paralysis.[fn]Kagame told a University College (London) economist the crisis was about performance, not third terms. “Rwanda’s President Kagame tell Burundi’s Nkurunziza to step down”, Kenya Today, 11 May 2015. “Rwanda aids Burundi rebels, North Korea arms Congo – UN experts”, Reuters, 12 May 2016; US accuses Rwanda of stoking violence in Burundi”, Agence France-Presse, 11 February 2016. Yolande Bouka, “Missing the Target: The African Union’s Mediating Efforts in Burundi”, Egmont Royal Institute of International Relations, June 2016.Hide Footnote

Former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa’s appointment as facilitator in March 2016 signalled increased Tanzanian engagement and revived optimism in the EAC process. However, negotiation delays, interference from the new EAC secretary general, Libérat Mfumukeko (an Nkurunziza loyalist), and the government’s refusal to sit down with the Conseil national pour le respect de l’accord d’Arusha pour la paix et la réconciliation au Burundi et de l’Etat de droit (CNARED), the opposition coalition, during the first round of talks on 21 May, sparked criticism of him. His decision to meet with exiled opponents separately in Brussels somewhat allayed fears, but the discussions collapsed in July, amid government walkouts and opposition boycotts.[fn]“Violence increases as Burundi talks delayed”, Voice of America, 2 May 2016; and “Burundi peace talks open in Tanzania with opposition criticism”, Reuters, 21 May 2016. “Burundi: pour le Cnared, la rencontre avec Mkapa est déjà une ‘victoire’”, Radio France Internationale (RFI), 10 June 2016; “Burundi: peace talks collapse in Arusha”, The East African, 16 July 2016.Hide Footnote

B. The UN’s Role

The UN has been actively involved. There have been two Security Council visits and another from the Secretary-General (February 2016), plus Council meetings resulting in three resolutions, two presidential statements and a series of press releases. However, these have borne little fruit. Two reasons stand out. First, disagreements over how to mitigate and resolve the crisis stymied decisive response. Secondly, the Council tried to follow the African lead, but the continent has rarely spoken with a single voice. The Council’s slow response, despite warnings by the Secretariat, also illustrates its declining influence in Burundi. This was particularly evident in the withdrawal, under pressure, of the UN’s special political mission and its replacement in January 2015 by an electoral observation mission, with a significantly narrower mandate.[fn]For example, in January 2015, the Secretariat warned that the elections could “either consolidate or unravel the peace consolidation efforts undertaken since the Arusha accords” and pointed to the eroding spirit of the accords, shrinking of political space, intimidation of opposition supporters and limitations on free assembly and expression. “Report on the United Nations Office in Burundi”, UNSC S/2015/36, 19 January 2015. “Burundi briefing and consultations”, What’s in Blue (, 27 January 2014. See also, Crisis Group Africa Report N°192, Burundi: Bye-bye Arusha?, 25 October 2012.Hide Footnote

As the 2015 elections approached, some Western governments focused statements on opposition to Nkurunziza’s third term. A number of non-permanent Security Council members and Secretariat officials argue that emphasising this, rather than the risk of violence and importance of dialogue, complicated consensus efforts in a Council whose divisions over other crises were starting to seep into its response. Its first visit to Burundi in March 2015 was of limited value, as members had not agreed on a clear message or possible leverage.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, New York, December 2015, February 2016. Whether a different focus would have made consensus easier is unclear, given already acrimonious relations over Ukraine and Syria. Some also argue that the insistence Nkurunziza stand down also made the opposition less likely to compromise. Crisis Group interviews, UN officials, New York, July 2015.Hide Footnote

An idea that gained traction after the second, January 2016 visit, was police deployment. Some Western permanent members initially wanted an armed international presence to protect civilians in the event of widespread violence following increasingly sharp anti-Tutsi rhetoric.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN and member state officials, New York, February 2016.Hide Footnote  Subsequently, as the Council perceived an immediate genocide threat subsiding, proponents argued police could increase monitoring and so deter continuing human rights abuse by authorities.

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In April 2016, the Secretariat presented the Council three deployment options: light (twenty-50 unarmed police to work with Burundian forces); middle (228 unarmed police); and a 3,000-strong force.[fn]Angola, China, Egypt, Russia and Venezuela favoured the light option, largely toeing Burundi’s line. France, the penholder, considered the middle course most viable given Council dynamics. The U.S. initially backed the most robust option, with formed police units to patrol visibly and report regularly. Crisis Group interviews, member-state officials, New York, April-August 2016. “Burundi: briefing on options for police deployment”, What’s in Blue, 26 April 2016.Hide Footnote  After months of intermittent discussion, the Council authorised deployment of up to 228 to monitor the security situation and support the office of the high commissioner for human rights in monitoring human rights abuses. Russia, which initially wanted the lighter option, voted in favour, but abstentions from Angola, China, Egypt, and Venezuela, all citing Bujumbura’s opposition to a large police presence, dampened any sense of Council unity. The Burundian government swiftly rejected the resolution.[fn]Resolution 2303, which authorised the police, also asked the Secretariat to report on how the UN could facilitate deployment of AU observers and for proposals on how the UN police component could cooperate with them. It did not specify whether police would be armed, but Council members generally assumed they would not be, per the Secretariat’s second option. UNSC S/RES/2303, 29 July 2016. Crisis Group interviews, New York. “Government reaction following the adoption by the UN Security Council of the Resolution 2303 (2016)”, 2 August 2016.Hide Footnote  Some Council members have privately urged the UN Secretariat to liaise with Nkurunziza to soften his position on the police, and some have engaged bilaterally with Burundi.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, New York, September 2016.Hide Footnote  But the Council has taken no further collective action on its resolution – and has not even formally discussed the Burundi situation since July – further illustrating the degree to which divisions undermine its effectiveness.

As Russia and China tend to take their cue on regional crises from African members, it further complicates the Council’s role that the A3 have not spoken with one voice or followed AU policy. During discussions in November 2015, Angola counselled against using language directly from earlier PSC communiqués. Russia and China supported its position until the AUC persuaded them to withdraw their objections. Since joining the Council in January 2016, Egypt has taken a strong pro-government, anti-interventionist stand on many crises, joining Angola, China, Russia and Venezuela to resist robust UN action in Burundi.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU and UN officials, Addis Ababa, 9 December 2015, 29 January 2016. Cairo wants to uphold the principle of non-interference, support a fellow Nile Basin country and exact payback for the AUC’s suspension of its participation following the 2013 ousting of President Mohamed Morsi. Egypt also became a member of the AU PSC in April 2016. Crisis Group interviews, AU official, Western diplomats, Addis Ababa, 25 January, 16 March 2016.Hide Footnote

C. International Discord and Disunity

Institutional rivalries, coupled with the absence of shared analysis, have prevented coordinated approaches.[fn]While strategic coordination has been limited, cooperation between the AU and UN at a working-level in Burundi has been more effective.Hide Footnote  Early attempts at collective action, such as initial cooperation between the AU and EAC and formation of the Joint International Facilitation Team (representing the EAC, AU, International Conference on the Great Lakes Region and UN), were short lived, leaving each appearing to defend its own role or trying to carve out space at the expense of a competitor.[fn]The joint team, created at a June 2015 PSC summit, apparently met just once, after which it called for election postponement to 30 July. “Statement by the Joint International Facilitation Team on Burundi”, 26 June 2015.Hide Footnote

Though its mediation stalled, the EAC was unwilling to allow the AU to engage further. The AUC has bristled at the UN’s enhanced role after MAPROBU’s failure, fearing that the Security Council’s proposed police contingent would steal the mandate and draw financial support away from its human rights and military observers. Nkurunziza has been quick to exploit UN-AUC tension, at times courting the former while giving the cold shoulder to the latter and lobbying Council members not to support the AU’s observer mission.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, UN official, 15 March 2016; AU officials, Addis Ababa, 31 January, 22 March 2016; UN officials and African diplomats, New York, 25-26 May 2016.Hide Footnote  Mkapa, like his predecessor, has been slow to accept UN help, relying instead on the EAC secretariat, headed by a Burundian diplomat, despite its limited mediation experience.

The international community missed a number of other opportunities to demonstrate joint commitment to resolving the crisis, such as could have been done if the PSC and AUC chairperson had joined UN counterparts’ Burundi visits, assuming positions and messaging were aligned in advance and then relayed clearly to Nkurunziza.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, AU and UN officials, Addis Ababa, 29 January 2016.Hide Footnote  They should take up further chances for collaboration.

VI. Moving Forward

The crisis is at an impasse, and genuine inclusive dialogue between government and opposition seems a remote possibility. Positions are entrenched, and both are playing for time as the toll rises.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°235, Burundi: A Dangerous Third Term, 20 May 2016; commentary, “Insights from the Burundian Crisis (III): Back to Arusha and the Politics of Dialogue”, 7 July 2016.Hide Footnote  Despite widespread censure, the government has proven it can resist international pressure. The EAC-led mediation under Museveni has made little progress but is currently the only mechanism for dialogue, so the AU, UN and others should provide logistical, financial and political support. More crucially, the AU, UN and EAC need to build consensus and coordinate better. A contact group would be an important step toward aligning positions and could inject new life into negotiations. As requested by Mkapa, Museveni (and other EAC leaders) must become more personally engaged. Having agreed to mediate, he should shoulder the responsibilities and, as a minimum, set out his vision for the way forward.

Two key leverage points have not yet been fully utilised: targeted sanctions and denying Burundi’s financially advantageous participation in AU and UN peacekeeping operations. Implementation of limited sanctions has been haphazard and half-hearted.[fn]For example, in October 2015, the EU sanctioned four government members; two months later the U.S. sanctioned a slightly different group.  But with government revenue falling and further GDP decline forecast, the government is vulnerable to economic pressure. UN sanctions are unlikely given Security Council divisions, but the AU should implement the PSC’s October 2015 decision to impose targeted sanctions. Despite the difficulty of ensuring full adherence in a region generally supportive of Nkurunziza, that would send an important signal and add further pressure on the government. The EU and the U.S., whose special Great Lakes region envoy has already condemned the use of inflammatory rhetoric, should expand their existing sanctions to include those propagating hate speech. Removal of sanctions should be clearly benchmarked to reducing violence, ending impunity and starting dialogue.[fn]“Burundi braces for more violence”, Deutsche Welle, 7 November 2015. Crisis Group Statement, “Burundi: Time for Tough Messages”, 24 February 2016.

Funds from the army’s contribution to the AU mission in Somalia (AMISOM) and the UN mission in the Central African Republic are a vital lifeline for the government. Removal could force it to change its dangerous trajectory. The EU and AU should finalise changes so that AMISOM money is paid directly to the soldiers. The AU and its partners should also solicit other troop contributors to replace Burundian soldiers within AMISOM eventually, so as to pressure the authorities to begin an open, genuine dialogue.[fn] “EU takes aim where it hurts Burundi – peacekeeper funding”, Reuters, 29 March 2016. Crisis Group Report, Burundi: A Dangerous Third Term, op. cit. A UN Human Rights Council-mandated investigation that found widespread, systematic human rights violations in Burundi has urged the UN and AU to “phase out the use of Burundian troops in peacekeeping operations while the crisis continues”. “Report of the UN Independent Investigation on Burundi (UNIIB) established pursuant to Human Rights Council Resolution S-24/1*”, UN HRC A/HRC/33/37, 20 September 2016, p. 23. The Burundian government rejected the findings as “politically exaggerated”. Foreign Minister Alain Nyamitwe, UN General Assembly speech, 24 September 2016. 

VII. Conclusion

Attention and interest has shifted away from the Burundi crisis. The government appears to have realised that keeping casualties to a minimum limits scrutiny and is forging ahead with plans to change the constitution and abolish presidential term limits. Discussions about this could begin at October’s parliamentary session. Though the 2020 election cycle seems far off, international actors should press harder for a political settlement. Postponing firmer, more unified action would leave the country at best in a permanent state of low intensity violence. Despite internal divisions, the AU should not disengage but rather insist on deployment of its human rights and military observers. Institutional rivalries between the AU, EAC and UN must not block the concerted international action needed to secure a negotiated solution and prevent a deeper decent into civil war.

Addis Ababa/Nairobi/Brussels, 28 September 2016

VIII. Glossary

A3 The collective name for the three rotating African members of the UN Security Council, currently Angola, Egypt and Senegal.

ACHPR The African Commission on Human and People’s Rights oversees and interprets the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights, an international instrument designed to promote and protect human rights and basic freedoms on the continent.

AMISO African Union Mission in Somalia.

APSA The African Peace and Security Architecture, the umbrella term for the AU’s mechanisms for promoting peace, security and stability in Africa. It consists of the Peace and Security Council, the Panel of the Wise, the Continental Early Warning System, the Africa Standby Force and the Peace Fund.

AU African Union.

AUC The African Union Commission is the AU’s secretariat. Headquartered in Addis Ababa, it is led by the Chairperson (currently Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma) and supported by a deputy chairperson and eight commissioners.

CEWS The Continental Early Warning System gathers information about potential conflicts or threats to the security of AU member states. It is housed in the Peace and Security Department’s Conflict Prevention and Early Warning Division.

CNARED The National Council for the Restoration of the Arusha Agreement and the Rule of Law is a coalition of the main exiled Burundian opposition movements, as well as two former presidents, members of civil society and CNDD-FDD dissidents.

CNDD-FDD The National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy is Burundi’s ruling party. During the civil war (1993-2005) it was a significant rebel group.

DRC Democratic Republic of Congo.

EAC The East African Community is an inter-governmental organisation with six members: Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Tanzania and Uganda.

EASF The Eastern Africa Standby Force is one of the five regional multidimensional forces that make up the African Standby Force. It members are Burundi, Comoros, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Kenya, Rwanda, Seychelles, Somalia, Sudan and Uganda.

EU European Union.

MAPROBU African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi.

PSC The Peace and Security Council, the AU’s decision-making organ for the prevention, management and resolution of conflict, is a standing committee of fifteen members elected according to regional representation and rotation.

PSD The AUC’s Peace and Security Department supports the PSC and Commission in activities related to the promotion of peace, security and stability in Africa.

MoU Memorandum of understanding.

RECs The Regional Economic Communities are groupings of African states formed to facilitate economic integration between member states. They are increasingly involved in coordinating AU member states’ interests in areas such as peace and security, development and governance. The AU recognises eight RECs.

RMs The regional coordinating mechanisms of the regional standby forces of Eastern and Northern Africa.

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