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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

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 (www.whatsinblue.org), 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.

A woman works in a field outside Ngozi in northern Burundi on 20 July 2015. Some 90 percent of Burundians rely on agriculture to make a living. AFP PHOTO / PHIL MOORE
Report 264 / Africa

Helping the Burundian People Cope with the Economic Crisis

Au Burundi, le déclin de l’économie exacerbe le risque de violence. L’Union européenne et ses Etats membres, qui ont suspendu leur aide directe au gouvernement, doivent redoubler d’efforts pour que leur soutien bénéficie à la population.  

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What’s happening? In the wake of the political and security crisis ongoing in Burundi since 2015, the economy has suffered a sharp decline. The economic and social progress achieved since the end of the civil war in the 2000s risks being swept away. Burundians’ living conditions and access to services are deteriorating.

Why does it matter? Worsening unemployment and poverty increase the likelihood of instability and exacerbate the risk of violence, while the “yes” vote in Burundi’s 17 May 2018 constitutional referendum could lead to the demise of Hutu-Tutsi power-sharing agreements in public institutions.

What should be done? The European Union and its member states, who suspended direct aid to the government, should step up their assistance to the population, including by strengthening the capabilities of their partners in the non-governmental sector, while minimising risks that external aid aggravates local conflict dynamics.

Executive Summary

If the “yes” vote in Burundi’s 17 May 2018 constitutional referendum has deepened the country’s political and security crisis, its economic woes also increase risks of violence. With an economy in recession since 2015, Burundians’ living conditions and access to services are deteriorating. Worsening unemployment and poverty, combined with the potential demise of power sharing between Hutu and Tutsi in public institutions, make instability in the medium to long term likely. The European Union (EU) and its member states, who have suspended direct aid to the government, should nonetheless step up their support to Burundi’s people by increasing aid for basic services, strengthening the non-governmental organisations (NGOs) through which they channel aid, while doing everything possible to ensure that their aid does not aggravate conflict dynamics, especially at the local level.

With donor support, Burundi had been making modest economic and social progress since the end of the civil war in the 2000s. But its current economic woes cast a shadow over this progress. The annual growth rate has fallen from an average of 4.2 per cent between 2004 and 2014 to −3.9 per cent in 2015 and −0.6 per cent in 2016. People across society are paying the price. Farmers and traders are struggling because internal demand for their products has declined; civil servants’ purchasing power has fallen; and shopkeepers report giving ever more customers credit. Many Burundians must find a second job, indulge in petty corruption or eliminate non-essential spending to survive. A decade of progress in health and education has been swept away. Many doctors have left the country. Teachers are often paid in arrears. University education is under threat as student grants are cut.

Following consultations under Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement, which provides for the suspension or change in terms of EU aid if one of the parties does not respect human rights, democratic principles and the rule of law, the EU and its member states – until then Burundi’s main donors – withdrew direct budgetary support in 2016. They also redirected aid from Burundian ministries to international NGOs, UN agencies and member states’ development arms. Some European donors now work directly with local NGOs or plan to do so, though many of the latter have limited capacity and are under close government scrutiny. In early 2018, the EU decided to reduce its overall aid to Burundi, though basic sectors (including health, nutrition and access to electricity in rural areas) still receive funds.

The government blames speculators and donors for its own economic mismanagement and is clamping down on signs of protest.

In contrast, the World Bank and the African Development Bank continue to provide budgetary support and work with ministries. The Burundian government has established new partnerships with China, Turkey and Russia. But these countries’ aid remains largely symbolic, does not aim to strengthen government capacities and has limited impact on the population.

The government blames speculators and donors for its own economic mismanagement and is clamping down on signs of protest. Desperate to increase state revenue, it has introduced new taxes and obligatory public “contributions”, forcing civil servants and ordinary Burundians to donate extra money to state coffers. Under government pressure, banks that are partly state owned have made loans to the government, putting their solvency at risk. With no resolution of the country’s political crisis in sight, the population is slipping deeper into poverty. The gloomy prospects for development, collapse of social services, rising unemployment and deepening repression have pushed many young Burundians into exile.

Burundi’s European partners have only limited room for manoeuvre. In 2019 or 2020, they will adopt new five- or ten-year aid programs. Even while budgetary support remains suspended, European donors should increase aid for the population. It is vital to minimise risks that the provision of external assistance, which may be coveted by many Burundian actors (including the population, the authorities and NGOs), exacerbate conflict dynamics at the local level. If they plan to channel aid through local NGOs, European donors should help those organisations build the capacity to manage funds in a tense security and political environment. This could include, for instance, measures to increase support for organisations facing government pressure, or diplomatic assistance in cases of authorities’ harassment of NGO employees.

Brussels/Nairobi, 31 August 2018


The crisis triggered in 2015 by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term is ongoing. According to human rights organisation Ligue Iteka, 456 people were killed, 283 tortured and 2,338 subjected to arbitrary detention in 2017, the vast majority of them at the hands of the authorities.[fn]“Rapport annuel de la Ligue burundaise des droits de l’homme ‘ITEKA’ janvier-décembre 2017”, Ligue Iteka, Bujumbura, December 2017.Hide Footnote The East African Community’s mediation has become bogged down and the government has revised the constitution with the apparent goal of allowing Nkurunziza to remain in power until 2034.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°235, Burundi: A Dangerous Third Term, 20 May 2016; and Richard Moncrieff and Elissa Jobson, “AU must re-engage in Burundi to push for inclusivity as a way out of violence”, The East African, 21 May 2018.Hide Footnote

In the wake of this political and security crisis, the country’s economy has shrunk at an alarming rate and socio-economic progress made after the end of the civil war in the 2000s has been derailed. Although poverty remained widespread, it was gradually retreating, from 67.1 per cent of the population in 2006 to 64.6 per cent in 2014, thanks to macroeconomic stability and an important inflow of development funds.[fn]“Burundi: profil et déterminants de la pauvreté. Rapport de l’enquête modulaire sur les conditions de vie des ménages 2013/2014”, Institut de statistiques et d’études économiques du Burundi (Isteebu), May 2015.Hide Footnote

In 2015, a number of donors including the European Union (EU), the country’s largest donor, suspended part of their funding. Instead of seeking a compromise, the government chose a policy of confrontation. Burundi has also suffered from a flight of private capital and a brain drain, with skilled labour leaving the country. The annual growth rate of real gross domestic product (GDP), having reached an average of 4.2 per cent between 2004 and 2014, fell to −3.9 per cent in 2015 and −0.6 per cent in 2016.[fn]For GDP figures, see the World Bank’s website (https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG?locations=BI). See also “Burundi Fact Sheet”, World Bank, October 2017; “Indice des prix à la consommation des ménages au Burundi”, Isteebu, December 2017; and “Economic and Social Impacts of the Turmoil in Burundi: An Overview”, United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), April 2016.Hide Footnote

Pour les chiffres du PIB, voir le site internet de la Banque mondiale (https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.MKTP.KD.ZG?locations=BI). Voir aussi « Burundi Fact Sheet », Banque mondiale, octobre 2017 ; « Indice des prix à la consommation des ménages au Burundi », Isteebu, décembre 2017 ; et « Economic and Social Impacts of the Turmoil in Burundi: An Overview », Programme des Nations unies pour le développement (PNUD), avril 2016.Hide Footnote

The figures reveal the calamitous effect of the crisis, and the Burundian economy’s extreme sensitivity to the political situation.

The figures reveal the calamitous effect of the crisis, and the Burundian economy’s extreme sensitivity to the political situation. Over the past three years, as the country has descended into crisis, the economy has stalled. This report investigates how socio-economic woes affect people’s everyday lives, government actions and, consequently, the country’s stability and future prospects; it analyses the dilemmas facing donors and ways in which they could reduce the risk of violent conflict in Burundi. In addition to input from economic experts and business people, it is based on interviews with Burundians of various backgrounds who are locked in a daily struggle to ensure they support their families in one of the world’s poorest countries.[fn]Traders, motorcycle taxi drivers, bar owners, teachers, civil servants, etc.Hide Footnote Our findings are largely based on data from 2017; some figures have not been updated due to restricted access to Burundi.

A Multifaceted Socio-economic Crisis

The Burundian economy is being progressively impacted by limited supply, and the government is struggling more than ever to fund its social policies, particularly in the health and education sectors.

Supply Constraints

The lack of basic necessities such as the sugar produced by the Moso Sugar Company (Sosumo), fuel and electricity, have now become part of Burundians’ everyday lives. Supplies of beer from the brewer and soft beverage company Brarudi are also becoming scarce. While these shortages are not entirely new, they have become more frequent and severe over the past two years.

The lack of foreign exchange reserves is the main cause of this situation.[fn]“Crise actuelle des devises: la situation s’améliore-t-elle?”, Parole et Action pour le Réveil des Consciences et l’Evolution des Mentalités (PARCEM), 13 September 2017; “Le manque de devises handicape l’économie du Burundi”, Burundi Eco, 19 September 2017.Hide Footnote The Burundian economy is structurally dependent on imports and international financial aid; before 2015, total export earnings barely covered the cost of oil imports. For years, overseas funding – through development aid, particularly budgetary support, as well as foreign direct investment (FDI) – compensated for the lack of national resources, thus allowing the Burundian state to acquire the dollars it needed to import essential products.[fn]“Economic and Social Impacts of the Turmoil in Burundi: An Overview”, op. cit.Hide Footnote However, the political crisis has prompted donors and economic actors from the private sector to withdraw. Foreign aid, which previously accounted for more than 50 per cent of development project funding, has plummeted; FDI has fallen from $46 million in 2014 to $7 million in 2015; and the decision by Burundian businessmen to delay investments has created an opportunity cost.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

Forced to ration the supply of dollars held by the Central Bank, of which the total amount is equivalent to just one and a half months of imports,[fn]Crisis Group interviews, development agency executives, Washington DC, November 2017.Hide Footnote the Burundian authorities have prioritised the financing of three vital commodities: fuel, medicines and fertilisers. But the priority allocation of hard currency to pay for these three products remains insufficient, and they have become less available since 2015, with regular disruptions in supplies.

The dwindling availability of essential products is contributing to the spiralling cost of food products.

The lack of fuel has become a chronic problem. Every other week, fuel stations run short of stock.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, economic actors, Bujumbura, May and September 2017. “La pénurie de carburant déstabilise la capitale”, Iwacu, 27 April 2017; “Gitega: le manque criant du carburant de type essence limite la circulation”, Radio Isanganiro, 14 September 2017.Hide Footnote As a result, the price of a bus ticket from Kayanza to Bujumbura, which was Fbu 5,000 ($2.9) before the crisis, has since doubled. Fishermen have passed on the higher cost of diesel they use for their boats by tripling the price of fish.[fn]“Rumonge: la pénurie du carburant affecte la pêche”, Iwacu, 24 May 2017; “Pénurie de carburant: beaucoup de secteurs affectés”, Burundi Eco, 2 June 2017.Hide Footnote Mobile telephone companies, whose networks rely on generators, are demanding reductions to their bills or priority energy supplies.

Agriculture still represents 40 per cent of the country’s GDP and provides a livelihood for more than 70 per cent of the active population, but fertiliser deliveries were frequently delayed in 2016 and 2017.[fn]“Economic and Social Impacts of the Turmoil in Burundi: An Overview”, op. cit., p. 3. “Retard de l’engrais pour la saison culturale B à Cankuzo”, Infos Grands Lacs, 19 February 2016. “Café: des fertilisants et insecticides bientôt disponibles”, Iwacu, 2 February 2017.Hide Footnote Businesses have trouble importing supplies when their foreign suppliers become unwilling to offer them credit. This is affecting Burundian fuel importers and the Brarudi, the country’s only brewery. Its unpaid bills to its suppliers are piling up, and the Central Bank is not making enough dollars available to the company.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Brarudi executive, Bujumbura, September 2017.Hide Footnote

The dwindling availability of essential products is contributing to the spiralling cost of food products (which rose by 21.9 per cent from September 2016 to September 2017).[fn]“Indice des prix à la consommation des ménages au Burundi”, Isteebu, September 2017.Hide Footnote In a country where food represented 20 per cent of total imports in 2014, currency shortages have a direct impact on the food market.[fn]“Economic and Social Impacts of the Turmoil in Burundi: An Overview”, op. cit., p. 4.Hide Footnote A parliamentary report described how “sugar and fuel are essential products. Their rising price has a knock-on effect on other products …. This combines to make the Burundian people’s already difficult living conditions more precarious than ever”.[fn]“Rapport des réalisations du groupe parlementaire chargé de la bonne gouvernance, de la privatisation des biens de l’Etat lors de sa descente dans différentes provinces du pays pour s’enquérir de la gestion de la vente du sucre et du carburant”, National Assembly, April 2017.Hide Footnote

The lack of both hard currency and fuel has led to a flourishing black market, which drives up prices even further. Faced with the growth of the parallel exchange market, the authorities have attempted to regain control by closing several bureaux de change and outlawing money exchangers on the street.[fn]Press release, Bank of the Republic of Burundi (Banque de la République du Burundi – BRB), 12 July 2017.Hide Footnote Nevertheless, this activity continues and even appears tolerated: the black market exchange rate is even published in several newspapers.[fn]Burundi Eco publishes both the official and black market exchange rate.Hide Footnote

Burundi Eco publie le taux de change sur le marché officiel et sur le marché parallèle.Hide Footnote

Deteriorating Social Services

After the end of the civil war, some progress was made in health and education, thanks to a combination of investments from donors and the government. But these social services have now deteriorated under budgetary constraints. They are already failing to meet the population’s growing needs, and the government’s two flagship social policies since 2005 – free primary school education and health care for under-fives and pregnant women – are under threat.


From the early 2000s, remarkable advances were made at primary level as a result of the introduction of free education, initiatives to take in more pupils and measures to reduce failure rates.

The budgets allocated to government ministries with education in their portfolios were cut from Fbu 346 billion to Fbu 243 billion ($198 to $139 million) from 2015 to 2016, exacerbating structural problems within the sector, namely the lack of equipment, understaffing, and overcrowded classrooms.[fn]“Le système éducatif burundais: une opération de sauvetage s’impose”, Parole et action pour le réveil des consciences et l’évolution des mentalités (PARCEM), 27 September 2016. “La crise politique affecte gravement le secteur éducatif burundais – l’impact de la crise politique et économique sur l’enseignement au Burundi”, special report, Forum pour le renforcement de la société civile, March 2017.Hide Footnote Rising food prices have forced a number of schools to make drastic cuts to food provided for pupils; in February 2016, the University of Burundi stopped providing breakfast.[fn]“Burundi: les élèves des écoles à régime d’internat souffrent de la crise alimentaire”, Xinhua, 5 March 2017.Hide Footnote

« Burundi : les élèves des écoles à régime d’internat souffrent de la crise alimentaire », Xinhua, 5 mars 2017.Hide Footnote

Following government cutbacks, school directors are resorting to ad hoc solutions.

Following government cutbacks, school directors are resorting to ad hoc solutions. Even though free primary school education is enshrined in law, they are now demanding contributions from parents to bridge the gap in their operating budgets and buy essential items (paper, chalk). It is increasingly common to find parents doubling up as unofficial, part-time teachers known as “abakutsakivi”. As a result, the national federation of associations defending children’s rights (Fenadeb) observed an increase in school dropout rates in 2016.[fn]“Burundi: plus de 115 000 abandons scolaires entre septembre 2015 et avril 2016”, Xinhua, 13 July 2017.Hide Footnote

The university system has also been hit by the budgetary restrictions, which triggered a mini political and social crisis at the University of Burundi (UB) in April 2017. Students are struggling to cover costs with their monthly 30,000 Fbu ($17) grant,[fn]Crisis Group interview, student, Bujumbura, February 2017.Hide Footnote given the mounting cost of attending university in the 2016-2017 academic year. These rising prices are affecting everything from board and lodging to the cost of graduating.[fn]The cost of a bachelor’s degree diploma has risen from Fbu 4,000 to Fbu 20,000 ($2.3 to $11.4); the certificate of higher education from Fbu 450 to Fbu 2,000 ($0.3 to $1.1).Hide Footnote In light of the 1 February 2017 decree, reorganising the system of grants awarded for studies and internships has come as a blow. Grants have been replaced by a system of repayable loans, unavailable to students who repeat years. These restrictive measures threaten the government’s generous policy of offering grants. Most of the 19,066 students who benefitted from it during the 2015-2016 university year could not have afforded to attend university without it.[fn]Figure obtained from the education ministry’s agency for student and internship grants.Hide Footnote

Between March and April 2017, students at the UB and the Ecole nationale supérieure tried to organise a protest movement against the decree, but were faced with a police crackdown. In an open letter published on 9 March 2017, they warned President Nkurunziza that they would call an indefinite strike unless the measure was suspended. Over the course of the following weeks, many of those involved were arrested and accused of involvement in insurrectionist movements.[fn]“Université du Burundi: un représentant des étudiants porté disparu, quatre autres arrêtés”, Jeune Afrique, 30 March 2017.Hide Footnote The chancellor’s office, directed by a member of the ruling party, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), also made repeated attempts to divide the students as a means of breaking up the movement. Since April 2017, a relative level of calm has returned to campuses, but simmering tensions remain.


From the early 2000s, the Burundian population’s health indicators showed signs of improvement – though overall performance remained low – thanks to free health care for children under five and pregnant women, the construction of hundreds of health centres and the decentralisation of health care.[fn]For example, 74 per cent of births currently take place in health-care facilities, the mortality rate for under-fives dropped from 184 per 1,000 to 142 per 1,000 between 1990 and 2010, 85 per cent of children between twelve and 23 months’ old have vaccination coverage and more than 80 per cent of the population has access to a health-care facility within a radius of less than 5km. The number of health centres increased from 573 in 2005 to 897 in 2014, and the number of hospitals from 44 in 2005 to 69 in 2014. “Politique nationale de santé 2016-2025”, Republic of Burundi, January 2016 and “Troisième enquête démographique et de santé au Burundi 2016-2017”, Isteebu, May 2017.Hide Footnote Investments by donors played a critical role. In 2013, they funded 62 per cent of the sector – the remainder was split between household contributions (19 per cent), government funding (13 per cent) and contributions from the civil service cooperative insurance scheme (5 per cent).[fn]“Burundi: Delivering Health Services under Fiscal Stress”, World Bank, 8 June 2017.Hide Footnote

The combined effects of the economic crisis are leading to a contraction in health-care services and a weakening governance of the sector.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote The need for health infrastructure remains acute, but development financing has dried up.[fn]Some health-care centres are half-finished, do not have drinking water and lack qualified personnel. “Plus que l’ombre d’un centre de santé”, Iwacu, 26 May 2016; “Cibitoke: un centre de santé sans locaux pour les malades”, Iwacu, 12 August 2017; and “Rumonge: des défis pour certains centres de santé”, Iwacu, 19 October 2017.Hide Footnote The problem has been compounded by the flight of human capital in a sector which already suffered from a severe lack of qualified personnel. Following the spate of violence in 2015, 101 doctors left the country while only 25 doctors were hired in 2016.[fn]“Burundi: Delivering Health Services under Fiscal Stress”, op. cit., p. 43.Hide Footnote In 2017, Burundi only had around 500 doctors in active employment. Of the current 18,570 health-care professionals, doctors and nurses represent 3 and 37 per cent respectively, with the remaining 40 per cent consisting of unqualified personnel.[fn]Ibid.Hide Footnote

The availability of medicines has been disrupted as the national medicine procurement agency can no longer adequately supply health centres, leading to a disruption in the supply of medication. The national health policy’s objectives – in particular universal health coverage by 2025 – now appear completely unrealistic.[fn]“Politique nationale de santé 2016-2025”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

« Politique nationale de santé 2016-2025 », op. cit.Hide Footnote

The Burundian People: Coping and Deprivation

International organisations have lauded the Burundians’ resilience during the current crisis.[fn]The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) organised a conference called “La résilience des jeunes face aux conflits sociopolitiques au Burundi” on 12 April 2017. The EU launched a call for expressions of interest, “Mesure d’appui à la résilience des populations du Burundi”, in November 2017.Hide Footnote For the vast majority of the population, both in Bujumbura and elsewhere in the country, daily life is a permanent struggle to get by.

Burundi has figured among the poorest countries in the world for many years, but poverty is deepening further with its per capita GDP slipping from $790 to $702 between 2013 and 2017.[fn]Expressed in terms of purchasing power parity. World Bank figures (https://data.worldbank.org/indicator/NY.GDP.PCAP.PP.KD?locations=BI).Hide Footnote Some 56 per cent of children suffer from chronic malnutrition and the prevalence rate of malaria among children has reached 38 per cent.[fn]“Troisième enquête démographique et de santé au Burundi 2016-17”, Isteebu, May 2017.Hide Footnote The socio-economic crisis has intensified every structural vulnerability of the Burundian population.

There has been widespread practice of siphoning off fuel from official vehicles and reselling it on the black market.

People are trying to boost their household finances through alternate means in order to cope with rising prices and falling incomes. Women without employment are selling small products; government employees abscond from work to do second jobs while their superiors find it hard to reprimand them (official government drivers work as taxi drivers during their working hours, for example);[fn]“The law is in place, but it’s hard to punish a man who says he was absent from work because he didn’t have enough to eat”. Crisis Group interview, head of department in a ministry, Bujumbura, December 2017.Hide Footnote loans are taken out from microloan companies or relatives, and people run up debts with shopkeepers, especially public officials who are paid in arrears. The diaspora is increasingly called upon to give financial support to family members remaining in Burundi.

These coping mechanisms lead some people to indulge in petty corruption and theft, as some public sector workers admit. A school teacher who has been struggling to make ends meet said, “under these circumstances, it’s hard to stop some of us accepting bribes from parents of pupils to get by each month”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Gitega province, July 2017.Hide Footnote A driver in a public office in Ngozi referred to the widespread practice of siphoning off fuel from official vehicles and reselling it on the black market.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Ngozi, August 2017.Hide Footnote Policemen are increasingly seeking bribes. Several motorcycle taxi drivers referred to making monthly payments to the local police chief, and paying between 2,000 and 5,000 Fbu ($1.1 and $2.9) in bribes to traffic police every day.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, Bujumbura, June and September 2017.Hide Footnote

Another form of resilience is through privations. Households that used to set aside a little money each month are no longer able to do so; many are forced to cut out non-essential spending, starting with recreational activities, visits to families in other parts of the country for those living in Bujumbura, and so on. A bar owner referred to dwindling customers: “Two years ago, I could sometimes sell about four jerrycans of banana wine a day, but now I’m lucky if I can sell two”.[fn]Crisis Group interview, Muyinga province, August 2017.Hide Footnote Many household members are also forced by necessity to skip meals and skimp on medications. And when coping mechanisms and privations are not enough, even more drastic actions are taken to reduce expenses. Some rural people, having moved to the capital in the hope of finding more opportunities, have no choice but to return to the rural provinces.

Those interviewed (bicycle taxi drivers living on $2 a day, shopkeepers, government employees, etc.) blame the deterioration of their living conditions on two things: increasing food costs and decreasing income in real terms.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civil servants, traders, bicycle taxi drivers, Bujumbura, December 2017.Hide Footnote Civil servants’ salaries are failing to keep up with inflation (a teacher’s minimum basic monthly salary is 17,722 Fbu, or about $10) and are paid late.[fn]Crisis Group interview, civil servant, Bujumbura, December 2017.Hide Footnote The increasing hardships experienced by public sector employees, who enjoyed comfortable positions before the crisis, have had an impact on society as a whole.

The Authorities’ Response to the Socio-economic Crisis

Following the withdrawal of its main donor (the EU) and with increasing security costs, the government has become ever more desperate for money. It has introduced taxes on the whole population, developed a wide array of alternative revenue sources (of varying degrees of legitimacy) and sought new donors. The government leadership’s stranglehold on the state allows those in power to enjoy comfortable lifestyles and protect themselves from the socio-economic hardships endured by the populace. The government has responded to the country’s serious social issues and economic recession in the same way as with human rights’ violations: by denying a problem exists at all.

When the country’s social and economic reality means that denial is no longer possible, the government then shifts responsibility onto “speculators” and donors, or refers to circumstantial causes. It blames the shortages of sugar and fuel on the speculations of businesses; the energy minister has also tussled with fuel importers, accusing them of having been behind fuel shortage in Burundi in order to “speculate and sabotage the economy”.[fn]“Certains pétroliers veulent créer une pénurie de carburant”, energy ministry statement (www.energie-mines.gov.bi/spip.php?article95), 5 May 2016. “Burundi: quand Bujumbura tente de justifier la pénurie d’essence”, Jeune Afrique, 20 June 2017. As a result of this showdown, the authorities drastically reduced the number of importers to two companies: Delta Burundi and Interpetrol. This goes against the recommendations of the parliamentary report of April 2017 (op. cit.) which advocated an increase in the number of importers and measures to provide them enough hard currency. “Pas de pénurie de carburant mais un retard d’approvisionnement”, Iwacu, 24 April 2017.Hide Footnote European and U.S. donors are regularly blamed for the country’s economic and social woes, or even for starting “a humanitarian war”.[fn]“Burundi: 50 000 Imbonerakure marchent contre la guerre humanitaire à Karusi”, Burundi AG News, 15 February 2017; “Le Burundi accuse l’Union européenne de déstabilisation”, Radio France Internationale (RFI), 6 June 2017.Hide Footnote

« Burundi : 50 000 Imbonerakure marchent contre la guerre humanitaire à Karusi », Burundi AG News, 15 février 2017 ; « Le Burundi accuse l’Union européenne de déstabilisation », Radio France Internationale (RFI), 6 juin 2017.Hide Footnote

Weakening Public Governance

Since the start of the crisis, reforms to the management of public finances have all effectively been put on hold. This is affecting public governance in every sector, particularly in health care, as evidenced by the malaria crisis in 2016. Though this disease is Burundi’s most serious public health issue, the health ministry delayed releasing the official statement on the epidemic by several months. Eventually, the World Health Organization (WHO) sounded the alarm in early 2017.[fn]The WHO figures are telling: in 2014, more than four million cases of malaria were recorded; in 2015, more than five million; and in 2016, more than seven million, which means more than 50 per cent of Burundi’s population. “Paludisme: l’OMS sort un rapport alarmant”, Iwacu, 1 March 2017.Hide Footnote

Public sector mismanagement is nothing new, but the situation has worsened so much that public policies have been undermined.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°185, Burundi: A Deepening Corruption Crisis, 21 March 2012.Hide Footnote In October 2017, the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis sanctioned the health ministry by withdrawing its subsidies for the 2018-2020 period, the equivalent of $72 million, and instead channelling it through the United Nations Development Program. It cited poor use of the funds and mismanagement among the reasons for its decision.[fn]In a statement on 18 October 2017, Gabriel Rufyiri, chairman of the Observatory for the Fight against Corruption and Graft (Olucome), called on the government to dismiss the second vice president, the health minister and members of the national committee in charge of monitoring the use of funds, with immediate effect, due to gross negligence for their management of the global fund’s aid. “La ministre de la santé sur la sellette”, Iwacu, 20 October 2017; “Sida: le Burundi sanctionné par le fonds mondial contre le sida”, RFI, 16 October 2017.Hide Footnote

Public sector management has further suffered as checks on the running of public bodies have all but stopped: according to the regulatory authority on public spending, the budgets of 2009, 2014, 2015 and 2016 were not independently audited; some Burundian officials blame this omission on the lack of international funding.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior official from the regulatory authority on public markets, Bujumbura, September 2017.Hide Footnote

Entretien de Crisis Group, cadre de l’Autorité de régulation des marchés publics, Bujumbura, septembre 2017.Hide Footnote

Increasing Taxes, Duties and Public “Contributions”
The government is passing onto citizens the cost of the breakdown in its relationships with the country’s donors and of the economic slump.

Faced with budgetary constraints, the government is looking to increase its revenues and reduce spending by shifting the burden onto others. Therefore, while the country is experiencing severe shortages, a raft of taxes and duties are being introduced on a range of goods and services.[fn]For a list of these new taxes and increased duties, see “Communiqué de presse portant sur le projet de budget général de l’Etat exercice 2017”, Olucome, 22 December 2016. “Burundi: les taxes explosent, la ménagère trinque”, La Tribune Afrique, 26 December 2016.Hide Footnote The official explanation refers to the need for a better domestic resource mobilisation, in line with the International Monetary Fund (IMF)’s recommendations, whereas in fact it is driven by the need to reduce the deficits of public bodies. In this way, the government is passing onto citizens the cost of the breakdown in its relationships with the country’s donors and of the economic slump.

The most high-profile example of this transfer in Burundi has been the call for public donations to fund the next general elections in 2020 (elections having traditionally been funded by foreign donors, essentially the EU) that has now become a mandatory contribution. The president himself launched a public campaign appealing to Burundians to contribute to the electoral budget. After this initiative failed, however, the government eventually opted for more coercive measures. A new law entered into force in 2017 making popular contributions for the elections obligatory according to a sliding scale, with a plan to make corresponding deductions from public salaries from early 2018 – a move criticised by the unions and the Catholic Church.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, civil servants, Bujumbura, December 2017. “Contributions pour les élections de 2020: l’Eglise dénonce un forcing”, Iwacu, 16 April 2018.Hide Footnote

Although the water and electricity company (Regideso) barely meets the country’s needs, the Ministry of Energy and Mining has raised the cost of electricity in 2017. This decision (which penalises private businesses, the main water and electricity consumers; only 2 per cent of the population has access to electricity) was motivated by Regideso’s urgent need to replenish its coffers and to attract foreign investors in the sector.[fn]Press conference, energy and mining minister, Bujumbura, 31 July 2017. “Hausse des prix de l’électricité au Burundi, une décision qui fait des étincelles”, Deutsche Welle, 18 August 2017.Hide Footnote

Conférence de presse du ministre de l’Energie et des Mines, Bujumbura, 31 juillet 2017. « Hausse des prix de l’électricité au Burundi, une décision qui fait des étincelles », Deutsche Welle, 18 août 2017.Hide Footnote

Shopkeepers, households and bicycle taxi drivers have been subjected to a raft of new taxes. After having charged street traders to be registered in March 2017, local officials in the capital made them pay for their identification cards in June (at a cost of Fbu 20,000, or $11.4 per card) even though, according to the trade ministry, these documents should be free.[fn]“Les commerçants ambulants doublement saignés”, Iwacu, 19 October 2017.Hide Footnote Households have been forced to pay 2,000 Fbu ($1.1) to acquire the mandatory household record book (cahier de ménage), and bicycle taxi drivers have been charged Fbu 40,000 ($22.8) to wear a now-obligatory jacket.[fn]Crisis Group interview, motorcycle taxi driver, Bujumbura, February 2017.Hide Footnote

Traditionally, the banking sector in Burundi has been controlled by the state.[fn]Janvier D. Nkurunziza, Léonce Ndikumana, Prime Nyamoya, “The Financial Sector in Burundi: An Investigation of Its Efficiency in Resource Mobilization and Allocation”, African Successes, vol. 3, National Bureau of Economic Research, University of Chicago Press, 2016.Hide Footnote The ruling party CNDD-FDD has been no exception in continuing the state’s shareholding in banks, and overseeing the appointment of board members. Government control of the sector has allowed it to both bend financial rules in its favour and to benefit those within the inner circle of power. Public and partly state-owned banks are forced to grant loans to the government.[fn]The debt owed by the state to banks has risen considerably: in 2017, 23 per cent of loans were granted to the government, as opposed to 5 per cent in 2012. Crisis Group interview, development agency executive, Nairobi, December 2017.Hide Footnote Public debt has grown while the solvency of the banks has diminished.

In another sign of government pressure on banks, at the end of 2017 the finance minister required the Burundi Commercial Bank (Banque commerciale du Burundi – Bancobu), the Burundi Bank of Commerce and Investment (Banque burundaise pour le commerce et l’investissement – BBCI), the Bujumbura Credit Bank (Banque de crédit de Bujumbura – BCB), the National Bank of Economic Development (Banque nationale de développement économique – BNDE), as well as the Urban Habitat Fund (Fonds de promotion de l’habitat urbain) to pay their end-of-year dividends to the state rather than to their staff.[fn]“Des banques interdites d’octroyer des avantages à leur personnel”, Infos Grands Lacs, 18 December 2017.Hide Footnote

After the CNDD-FDD came into power in 2006, it placed the development of social sectors in the hands of donors in conjunction with technocrats in government ministries. The withdrawal of European donors has now rendered the government helpless in the face of the social crisis. The leaders’ main concern is to secure enough funds to support their political and security networks. They reject any responsibility for shortages and worsening public services and instead put the blame on external players.

Donors: Dilemmas and Divergences Traditional Donors

Before the 2015 political crisis, Burundi was one of the world’s most aid dependent countries, with donor funds consistently above 50 per cent of the government budget. Diplomatic support for this notoriously fragile state began to fade after the electoral crisis of 2010. Since then, Western donors started to send conflicting messages; they shared with the government their concerns about human rights violations, while still supporting sector-specific policies with an aid program that remained significant.[fn]Nadia Molenaers, Gervais Rufyikiri and Stef Vandeginste, “Burundi and its Development Partners: Navigating the Turbulent Tides of Governance Setbacks”, Institute of Development Policy, University of Antwerp, working paper, December 2017.Hide Footnote However, budgetary support was called into question during discussions between donors and the government, partly as a result of the worsening governance.[fn]Interviews by a Crisis Group analyst in a former capacity, EU officials and Burundian ministers, Bujumbura, February 2012.Hide Footnote

Entretiens d’un analyste de Crisis Group dans des fonctions antérieures, responsables européens et ministres burundais, Bujumbura, février 2012.Hide Footnote

Belgium became the first country to suspend its aid to the government and to start channelling it through international and local NGOs.

The 2015 political crisis caused this relationship to sour, particularly in terms of aid from the EU and its member states. Tensions emerged between Burundi on the one hand and the European institutions and member states on the other. In summer 2015, Belgium became the first country to suspend its aid to the government and to start channelling it through international and local NGOs. The consultation process under Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement, which provides for a suspension of cooperation if one of the parties does not respect human rights, democratic principles and the rule of law, began in October 2015. In March 2016, the EU decided to suspend its support to the Burundian government after concluding that it was no longer respecting these fundamental principles.[fn]Council Decision (EU) 2016/394 of 14 March 2016 concerning the conclusion of consultations with the Republic of Burundi under Article 96 of the Cotonou Agreement, https://publications.europa.eu/en/publication-detail/-/publication/7f702329-ecd6-11e5-8a81-01aa75ed71a1.Hide Footnote

This has led to a reorientation of all European aid and a prolonged dispute on the funding of Burundian troops within the African Union’s peacekeeping mission in Somalia.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°247, Burundi: The Army in Crisis, 5 April 2017.Hide Footnote Although the European Commission continues to spend large amounts on health, food security, energy and rural development in Burundi, its cooperation with the ministries, like that of EU member states, has become very limited, and much of the existing aid for capacity building and technical support has been suspended.[fn]“Mesure d’appui à la résilience des populations du Burundi”, decision FED/2017/040-082, EU delegation to the Republic of Burundi, 2017.Hide Footnote Contact continues with counterparts in the ministries, but funds are increasingly funnelled through member states’ development agencies or international NGOs, and the European Commission is now exploring the possibility of using local NGOs. However, whether local or international, some NGOs lack the capacity to absorb the funds.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior officials in the aid sector, Europe, Bujumbura, January 2018.Hide Footnote

But the intense government pressure on local NGOs is proving to be the main problem:[fn]IbidHide Footnote the government has attempted to recoup the money that used to pass through the ministries;[fn]The health minister reportedly required local clinics to make financial contributions to the CNDD-FDD. “La cherté de la vie, la famine et la maladie au Burundi”, Forum for the Strengthening of Civil Society (FORSC), March 2017.Hide Footnote it has prevented local NGOs from meeting donors without the presence of state representatives;[fn]“Kayanza: distribution de cartes d’identité aux Batwa suspendue”, Iwacu, 31 January 2018.Hide Footnote and on at least one occasion it has made false accusations in order to intimidate and imprison heads of NGOs.[fn]“Burundi: des experts de l’ONU appellent à la libération du défenseur des droits de l’homme Germain Rukuki”, press release, Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, 25 August 2017.Hide Footnote

More pernicious still, the government has tried to increase its control over NGO recruitment, notably by monitoring the ethnic background of new staff.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior officials in the aid sector, Brussels, January 2018.Hide Footnote Although ethnic quotas, one of the principles of the Arusha Agreement in 2000 which helped bring an end to the civil war, have helped re-establish a certain balance within state sectors such as the army, previously dominated by the Tutsi, this recent initiative has deeply troubled NGO personnel and their supporters given the current climate of fear and encroaching political control.[fn]On the Arusha Agreement, read Laurent-Désiré Sahinguvu and Thierry Vircoulon, “Requiem pour un accord de paix, réflexions sur l’actualité de l’accord d’Arusha et la révision constitutionnelle”, Institut français des relations internationales, 2017.Hide Footnote

The World Bank – Burundi’s largest non-European donor – only marginally adjusted its current commitments of around $650 million in national and regional programs. The direct budgetary support has been suspended due to worries about the lack of financial data, but support for specific sectors continues, including through government ministries. Officials at the World Bank do not consider that the political crisis has a direct bearing on their work, except in so far as it affects the balance of payments and the government’s capacity to administer the allocated funds.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior executives in the aid sector, Washington, December 2017, and Europe, January 2018. “Burundi Fact Sheet”, 2017, op. cit.Hide Footnote The African Development Bank also continues to work with line ministries and the finance ministry as it did prior to the 2015 crisis.[fn]Crisis Group interviews, senior executives in the aid sector, Brussels, January 2018.Hide Footnote

Entretiens de Crisis Group, responsables du secteur de l’aide, Bruxelles, janvier 2018.Hide Footnote

The government has accused the EU of starting a “humanitarian war” against Burundi.

In response to the suspensions and changes in the form of granting aid, the government has veered from being aggressive to imploring, especially in its dealings with the European Union following the suspension of budgetary support. It has accused the EU of starting a “humanitarian war” against Burundi and has readily attributed the country’s ills to the suspension of European aid, while at the same time demanding its resumption.[fn]Besides the many statements made by the Burundian foreign affairs minister, the Senate has passed a resolution on this same issue, and the presidents of Uganda and Tanzania have also lobbied the EU to resume its cooperation with Burundi’s government. Resolution adopted by the Senate of the Republic of Burundi on 1 August 2017. “Museveni et Magufuli plaident pour la levée des sanctions de l’UE contre le Burundi”, Voice of America, 20 May 2017.Hide Footnote This reaction has complicated the work of donors on the ground, who still wish to maintain the necessary technical and diplomatic relations with the government and line ministries that are vital for their work, while preventing any actual money passing through the ministries.

Aid programs have five- or ten-year cycles. The current expenditure of the EU and member states mainly represent commitments made before 2015 and later adjusted following the crisis. For example, the European Development Fund’s indicative program was set up in 2014 and runs until 2020. In early 2018, the EU decided to cut the budget allocated for Burundi by €100 million, but the specifics terms have not yet been officially released.[fn]Crisis Group interview, EU official, August 2018.Hide Footnote

No representative of the EU or member state consulted by Crisis Group believes that Burundi will be able to respect the criteria of the Cotonou Agreement in the medium term (which in any case are subject to a general review as part of the reform of the Cotonou Agreement by 2020; the adoption of a new EU budget for the 2021-2027 period will probably see a reduction in the number of recipient countries benefitting from the EU Development Fund, or its replacement).[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report N°255, Nouveau départ pour les relations entre l’Union africaine et l’Union européenne, 17 October 2017.Hide Footnote It is therefore highly likely that after the 2014-2020 funding period the EU will scale back its aid for development from 2021 onward, although its humanitarian assistance and support for the intermediate category of “resilience” (health, food security, nutrition, and energy) will remain in place. Bilateral donors such as the Netherlands and Belgium will probably move in a similar direction over the next few years.

Searching for Substitute Donors

In a move to offset the decreasing aid from traditional donors, the government is on seeking new private and public sector donors. Its efforts to build on its relationships with China have been the most fruitful. The Chinese are building the new presidential palace and plan to construct a hydroelectric plant. In 2017 they already provided $30 million in budgetary support and a humanitarian donation of 5,000 tonnes of rice, in addition to the 5,200 tonnes sent at the end of 2016.[fn]“La Chine au chevet du Burundi”, Iwacu, 22 May 2017.Hide Footnote

Apart from China, the government is approaching donors such as Turkey, Egypt, the Saudi Fund for Development, and Russian parastatal companies.[fn]“Burundi signs deal with Russian banks on foreign investment”, Reuters, 17 June 2016.Hide Footnote In 2017, Burundi opened an embassy in Ankara and signed an economic and trade cooperation agreement with Turkey.[fn]“En crise avec l’UE, le Burundi se tourne vers la Turquie”, La Tribune Afrique, 28 July 2017. “Burundi: les amis de la criminelle milice Imbonerakure”, afrique.lalibre.be, 4 September 2017.Hide Footnote

For these replacement donors, development is less important than their political objective of garnering diplomatic support. Moreover, their aid does not counterbalance the reduction in funds from traditional donors: only China has agreed to provide budgetary support, and these new partners provide assistance for specific projects instead of structural support to the government administration and key development sectors (health, education, agriculture). Given their lack of expertise and/or interest in social sectors and administrative support, they limit their role to providing emergency relief (supplies of rice) and infrastructure projects on a modest scale.

The Burundian government – seeking to emulate Zimbabwe where the discovery of a diamond deposit in 2008 shored up Robert Mugabe in the face of sanctions – is banking on a mining bonanza. It has granted permits for mining companies to prospect and extract rare metals, gold and other minerals, and the president inaugurated several mines in 2017.[fn]“Lancement officiel des travaux d’exploitation des gisements d’or et de minerais à Mabayi”, government press release, 2 November 2017; “Le site minier de Mabayi a été inauguré par son excellence Pierre Nkurunziza”, statement by the presidential office of the Republic of Burundi, 2 November 2017; “L’exploitation des terres rares: une source de devises importante pour le Burundi”, Burundi Eco, 16 October 2017; “Rainbow ships first rare earths from Burundi mine”, Financial Times, 5 December 2017; and “La stratégie de Tanganyika Gold pour obtenir le permis de Mabayi”, Africa Mining Intelligence, 20 December 2016.Hide Footnote The state has become a shareholder in at least two joint mining ventures, at least one of which is in partnership with a Russian company.[fn]See the contract: http://rainbowrareearths.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/FinalSignedRB_GvtBdi_ML_Convention_27_3_2015.pdf. “Communiqué de presse portant sur l’octroi en cascade de permis d’exploration et d’exploitation des ressources minières au Burundi à des firmes étrangères …’’, Olucome, 15 November 2017. On corruption in the mining sector, “Gervais Rufyikiri: petit à petit la corruption a conquis les âmes”, Iwacu, 7 December 2016.Hide Footnote But private investments in the mining sector are unlikely to make any significant impact on the economy, at least in the short term.

Helping the Burundian People without Strengthening the Government

Three years after the onset of the political crisis linked to Nkurunziza’s third term, and with the recent “yes” vote in the constitutional referendum, the government in Bujumbura is politically strong despite the country’s fragile economy. The opposition has been silenced or exiled, and armed opposition groups do not pose a serious threat. Efforts to mediate between the government and opposition parties in exile have ground to a halt, due to the hardline approach of Bujumbura and the lack of any real commitment shown by other African presidents to exert coordinated pressure on the government. Under these circumstances, the ruling party will probably continue to dismantle the Arusha Agreement and control the country with an iron fist, and civil unrest will remain a constant risk.[fn]Crisis Group Africa Report, Burundi: A Dangerous Third Term, op. cit. See also “AU must re-engage in Burundi to push for inclusivity as a way out of violence”, op. cit.Hide Footnote

The economic crisis, however, is eroding the resources available to maintain the networks of cronyism around those in power, increasing the risk of rifts within the government. The struggle to maintain these networks could translate into internal squabbles and then disputes between ethnic groups, as has happened in the past, and this could ultimately lead to an outbreak of violence. Although the dire economic situation increases the risk of violence, it does not determine how it would play out, nor whether it would follow political or ethnic divisions at any given moment. But as shown in various other countries – particularly in Zimbabwe, where Robert Mugabe clung onto power for years despite the country’s economic collapse – a struggling economy offers no guarantee of political change. Therefore, the suspension of European aid to Burundi’s government has not fundamentally changed the strategy of the leaders in Bujumbura, probably because they intend to stay in power whatever the consequences on the population.

The EU and its member states should pursue their program of direct cooperation with local NGOs.

In any case, since EU officials are powerless to change the dynamic with Article 96, they must now carefully consider their next steps, as many of them are already doing. After having suspended its aid to the government in 2016, the EU must redouble its efforts to ensure that its support benefits the Burundian people. Burundi’s European partners will agree new five- or ten-year aid programs in 2019 or 2020.It is vital to minimise risks that the provision of this assistance, which may be coveted by many Burundian actors (including inhabitants, the authorities, NGOs and other local players) and thus may fuel competition among them, increase the risk of local conflict.[fn]Crisis Group interview, senior official in the aid sector, Brussels, February 2018.Hide Footnote

In addition to the aid being channelled through international NGOs, the EU and its member states should pursue their program of direct cooperation with local NGOs, taking particular care to avoid putting them at risk and to allow them to withstand government pressure. To achieve this, they could increase support for those under legal pressure from the government, or provide diplomatic support in cases where staff are being harassed by the authorities. The EU must also strengthen its delegation in Bujumbura and reinforce its monitoring of the use of funds by its partners to avoid any misappropriation. Some donors are already moving in this direction, in an approach which needs flexibility in the choice of partners and projects.


Two years before the next scheduled general elections in 2020, the Burundian people are still facing uncertainty and a protracted crisis. Aid reductions are exacerbating the economic impact of this unpredictable situation and daily life is becoming increasingly difficult for the general population. Given this, external donors should work to ensure that their aid genuinely benefits Burundians, at the same time as making diplomatic progress for greater political openness ahead of 2020.

Brussels/Nairobi, 31 August 2018

Appendix A: Map of Burundi