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The African Union Tried and Failed on Burundi. Now It’s Time to Try Again
The African Union Tried and Failed on Burundi. Now It’s Time to Try Again
AU Must Re-engage in Burundi to Push for Inclusivity as a Way out of Violence
AU Must Re-engage in Burundi to Push for Inclusivity as a Way out of Violence
Op-Ed / Africa

The African Union Tried and Failed on Burundi. Now It’s Time to Try Again

Originally published in African Arguments

Unless regional and international organisations act in concert and inject new life into the mediation process, Burundi risks igniting a wider crisis.

In its report released late last month, the UN Independent Investigation on Burundi paints a bleak portrait of a country that has been in political turmoil since May 2015. It describes a regime that is increasingly repressive, intolerant of dissent, and closed to the outside world. The investigators suggest that human rights violations committed by the government and its associates could amount to crimes against humanity.

In the capital Bujumbura, protesters were quick to denounce the report, claiming it to be biased. “I will continue to protest because the international community wants to invade Burundi”, one activist told Iwacu news.

However, the reality of the international community’s role in Burundi is far more complex. In fact, international attention has shifted away from the country, even as it slides further towards a humanitarian emergency. So far, 300,000 people have fled the country, a further 108,000 are estimated to be internally displaced, and 4.6 million – out of a population of 11 million – are in need of food aid.

The current crisis was sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision in May 2015 to seek a third term in office. This move was widely considered to be unconstitutional, and the following months saw mass protests, an attempted coup, armed uprisings and a brutal crackdown.

Since the violence reached its peak around December, the confrontation has settled into low-intensity warfare characterised by targeted assassinations, disappearances and torture, and the increasing use of ethnically-charged rhetoric.

African Disunion

Amongst others, the International Crisis Group has called for urgent measures to prevent the situation from becoming an ethnic conflict and wider emergency. But the international community has signally failed to halt the crisis, though not for the want of trying.

The African Union (AU) intervened early and took a strong position from the outset, with AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma setting the tone and direction. The AU Peace and Security Commission (PSC) met on an almost monthly basis, issuing communiqués and statements that gradually ratcheted up the pressure on the government.

The AU refused to send an election observation mission to Burundi in July 2015, saying the conditions for free and fair polls did not exist. And, as violence spiked following armed opposition attacks on military installations on 11 December 2015, the PSC authorised a 5,000-strong protection force (MAPROBU).

In doing this, the Commission took the unprecedented step of invoking Article 4(h) of the Constitutive Act, which allows the AU to intervene in a member state in cases of war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity. Nkurunziza was given 96 hours to accept the force.

The PSC had hoped this bold move would freeze the crisis and force the government to negotiate. And its actions arguably did focus international attention, help curb the worst security forces excesses, and spur efforts to revive the stalled regional mediation led by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. However, it failed to force Nkurunziza into a more inclusive, externally-mediated dialogue. Burundi’s government dismissed MAPROBU as an “invasion and occupation force”.

At the same time, African leaders declined to endorse the mission. This revealed a wide rift between the more interventionist AU Commission and member states who, for the most part, favoured a less confrontational approach to the crisis. The reference to Article 4(h) touched a raw nerve amongst governments with questionable democratic credentials and human rights records themselves. The AUC and PSC were seen to have over-stepped their bounds. As one senior official told Crisis Group, “we have embarrassed the continent”.

This debacle seriously damaged the AU’s 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 and PSC’s authority to act.

It also exposed procedural flaws in the PSC’s decision making process, which, unlike the UN Security Council, is driven by the Commission rather than member states themselves. The AU lost any authority it may have had in Bujumbura and has largely been marginalised in further attempts to resolve the crisis. Embarrassed by the failure of MAPROBU and faced with member-state indifference, the AUC and PSC appear to have lost impetus, silencing a much-needed voice of warning.

On The Same Page

The AU’s response has thus been disappointing, but neither the sub-region nor the UN have fared any better.

The international community’s inability to resolve the crisis in Burundi is partly due to divisions within and between the principal actors – the African Union, the East African Community (EAC) and the UN. Domestic considerations, power politics and historical allegiances and antagonisms, have shaped the hesitant response of Burundi’s neighbours. Meanwhile at the UN, disunity within the Security Council has thwarted its efforts.

Institutional rivalries and the lack of a shared analysis of the conflict’s nature and the situation on the ground have also prevented a coordinated approach, allowing Nkurunziza’s administration to play one side off against each other. As a result, the Burundian government has managed to rebuff the EAC’s lacklustre attempts to bring it to negotiations and stalled the deployment of both the AU-authorised human rights and military observers and the UN Security Council-sanctioned police force.

At its heart, Burundi’s crisis is political and only a negotiated settlement between the government and opposition can end it. But positions are entrenched and both sides are playing for time as the crisis deepens and the death toll steadily rises.

Little will change unless key members of the international community act in concert. As an immediate practical step, the AU, EAC and UN should form a contact group to align positions and inject new life into the EAC-led mediation process. Regional leaders, especially the designated EAC mediator President Museveni, should become more personally engaged, as requested by former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa, the dialogue facilitator. Having agreed to mediate, Museveni must accept the responsibilities and, as a minimum, set out his vision for the way forward.

Now is the time for the AU and its international and regional partners to push harder for a settlement. Postponing firmer, more unified action would leave the country at best in a permanent state of low-intensity conflict, and at worst in danger of igniting a regional crisis.

Op-Ed / Africa

AU Must Re-engage in Burundi to Push for Inclusivity as a Way out of Violence

Originally published in The East African

The constitutional changes, if passed, could reset the clock on term limits for President Pierre Nkurunziza — potentially giving him an additional 14 years in power — and paving the way for the dismantling of ethnic balances embedded in the 2000 Arusha Agreement, which brought an end to Burundi’s protracted civil war. 

The official results of the Burundi referendum were announced on Monday 21 May. Unsurprisingly, the government's proposed changes were approved. The opposition has refused to recognise the result. In this op ed, published in the East African just after the vote, our Project Director for Central Africa and our African Union Adviser look at the context of this fraught referendum and lay out measures the AU should now take.

Burundi held a referendum on Thursday amid growing violence, and intimidation as the government tried to silence voices opposed to its plan to alter the constitution.

The changes, if passed could reset the clock on term limits for President Pierre Nkurunziza — potentially giving him an additional 14 years in power — and paving the way for the dismantling of ethnic balances embedded in the 2000 Arusha Agreement, which brought an end to Burundi’s protracted civil war.

According to the new Constitution, clauses guaranteeing the minority Tutsi community a 40 or 50 per cent share of posts in some state institutions will be reviewed over the next five years.

In the context of the ruling CNDD-FDD’s increasing authoritarianism, there seems little chance that these assurances would survive such a review.

The African Union (AU), as an Arusha guarantor, has an obligation to uphold the Accord’s central principles. It must re-engage to prevent Burundi sliding back into open conflict ahead of the 2020 elections.

Climate of fear

Since the referendum was announced in December, the government’s political crackdowns, together with local revenge attacks and racketeering, have led to increasing violations of human rights.

The 430,000 refugees in neighbouring countries — the majority of whom fled in 2015 and 2016 due to intimidation of opponents of President Nkurunziza’s third term — show little sign of wanting to come home, despite being pressured by host countries to return.

The security services and the Imbonerakure, the CNDD-FDD’s youth wing, have targeted opposition party members and citizens calling for a no-vote, in particular members of the FNL-Rwasa party, which challenges the CNDD-FDD for the Hutu vote in-country.

Since the referendum was announced in December, the government’s political crackdowns, together with local revenge attacks and racketeering, have led to increasing violations of human rights.

Police and intelligence agents have carefully monitored campaign meetings and those who call openly for a no-vote face intimidation or worse. Those lucky enough to be arrested, rather than disappearing, join a growing number of civil society activists in prison, most recently human rights defender Germain Rukuki, sentenced to 32 years in prison for supposedly undermining state security.

To anyone familiar with the ethnic violence of Burundi’s past, motivated, in the words of the Arusha Agreement, by the desire to seek or retain political power, these arrests and disappearances are worrying.

Worse still, the government is propagating a virulent public discourse inciting violence against all who oppose it. The president himself set the tone on December 12 when, in announcing the referendum, said anyone opposing it would be “crossing a red line.” Since then, party militants have attacked those campaigning against the referendum or for voting no.

The government’s intention to dismantle the gains of Arusha has long been clear. In March 2014 it tried, but failed, to revise the Constitution through parliament.

Since 2015, the government has advanced its agenda through a carefully constructed doctrine according to which it, and by extension Burundian Hutus, are the victims of an international plot.

While ordinary people have remained resistant to the spectre of ethnic division, the administration has pushed what Crisis Group has previously called “ethnicisation from above,” wherein the country’s troubles are laid at the door of individuals of Tutsi ethnicity (such as Rwanda’s President Paul Kagame or former president Pierre Buyoya) in association with others (the United Nations Commission of Enquiry, the European Union, the International Criminal Court and the AU) who speak out against abuses.

Increasingly the divide is painted in stark religious terms: Between a divinely ordained president and his enemies’ evil machinations.

African solutions

Changing the Constitution in order to stay in power has long been a grey area in the AU’s governance doctrine. Consequently, the continent’s response to Burundi’s three-year-old crisis has been uneven.

The AU reacted early and firmly to the initial turmoil. As events unfolded, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) voiced its concern and attempted to deploy mediators, envoys and human rights observers. As violence peaked at the end of 2015, the PSC authorised a stabilisation force, MAPROBU.

Troops were never deployed, following a relative calming of the situation in-country at the start of 2016.

Bruised and shaken by the MAPROBU debacle, the AU ceded responsibility to the East African Community, under the principle of subsidiarity.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni became the chief negotiator and former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa was appointed facilitator of talks between the government and the now exiled opposition. But sensing that Mkapa had little political backing from African presidents, Nkurunziza refused to give ground. The mediation, which barely got off the ground, has now comprehensively stalled.

Since 2016, the violence in Burundi has remained at a steady rate without threatening to spill over the country’s borders, allowing Nkurunziza to claim a return to normality. While some African leaders and officials are alive to the country’s fragility, others buy into the government’s view.

As a guarantor of Arusha, the AU should resist the erosion of the agreement’s key provisions embodied in the approved constitutional changes. Its half-hearted response to the referendum – January’s AU summit simply called for “a broad consensus of all stakeholders” — will not suffice in the face of a concerted effort to dismantle the very political settlement that brought peace to Burundi.

In a country scarred by ethnic violence, the risks posed by the constitutional changes are huge and the case for preventative action [...] overwhelming.

In a country scarred by ethnic violence, the risks posed by the constitutional changes are huge and the case for preventative action (a key tenet of the AU’s peace and security mandate) overwhelming.

With elections now just two years away, talks between government and opposition aimed at creating a conducive environment for a vote in 2020 are more vital than ever.

The opposition’s mistrust of the ruling CNDD-FDD has deepened to the point where some see violence as the only way of exerting pressure for change. To avoid future escalation, the AU must re-engage now.

The current chairperson, Moussa Faki Mahamat, should use his good offices and the PSC should put Burundi back on its agenda. Greater pressure should be exerted on Bujumbura to open up the political space — including allowing exiled opposition activists to return without fear of harassment or prosecution — and to put an end to its divisive and inflammatory discourse. Without this, the alternative, sooner or later, will be violence.

Contributors

Project Director, Central Africa
richmoncrieff
Head of Africa Regional Advocacy
ElissaJobson