Politics in Place of Peace: The AU’s Role in Burundi

Violence escalates ... An activist holding a placard reading “Save Burundi” protests in the Kenyan capital of Nairobi on December 18, 2015, against recent killings in neighbouring Burundi by government forces in a crackdown against public dissent to a controversial third-presidential term. ©AFP

Lesley Connolly

When the decision [around Burundi] reached the level of the Assembly of Heads of States, it showed that in absence of consent there is no political willingness of African leaders to act against their own

Burundi has been moving toward greater instability since President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to stand for a third term in May 2015. Nkurunziza claimed he was entitled to a third term because his first was a post-transition mandate and he was not actually elected by the people. He argued that this made him eligible to stand again. The move, defying years of international efforts to build peace and stability, reignited what has turned into a deadly conflict. It has also created a situation that now vexes the African Union (AU) and its efforts to reach a resolution.

Nkurunziza’s political opponents and civil society immediately contested the third term, seeing it as a direct violation of the 2000 Arusha Agreement and the Burundian constitution. Their protests went unheard in the presidential palace. Elections where held in July 2015 and Nkurunziza received close to 70 per cent of the vote. Since then, the crisis has only grown more acute. Hundreds of opposition politicians, civil society activists and journalists have left for exile in Rwanda, Kenya or Belgium. Another 240,000 Burundians now live as refugees in neighboring countries. An internal political dispute has become a regional crisis.

The AU did not send any observers to Burundi for the July 2015 elections. Only after the polls closed did it deploy around twenty military and human rights observers. The number was supposed to increase to a total of 50 human rights and 50 military observers, but by late 2015 that had not happened.

As the crisis deepened, the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) tried to stop its escalation. On 17 December 2015, the PSC authorized the deployment of a force of 5,000 troops. The Mission africaine de Prévention et de Protection au Burundi (MAPROBU) was mandated for six months with the option to renew. It was tasked ‘to prevent any deterioration of the security situation, [to] monitor its evolution and report developments on the ground [and] to contribute, within its capacity and in its areas of deployment, to the protection of civilian populations under imminent threat’. This was a groundbreaking move for the AU, as it was the first time the organization authorized the deployment of a force against the wishes of a host country. The hesitant UN Security Council, unsure of what it should do, welcomed the action by AU in Security Council Resolution (S/Res/2248 (2015).

Receiving permission of the host country is one of the holy trinity of UN peacekeeping principles: consent of the parties, impartiality, and use of force only in self-defence. Having host state cooperation keeps peacekeepers safe. Without it, the legitimacy of the intervention can be challenged and the intervention might feel more than an invasion than a rescue mission. After making its move to intervene, the AU has now found itself with a new dilemma following President Nkurunziza’s refusal to accept the deployment of MAPROBU.

Failure to Act

What is stopping the AU? Burundi signed and ratified the protocol creating the PSC and thus is legally bound to accept and implement any decision of this body, and the intervention in this time of crisis should not need Burundi’s approval. This, though, is a contentious issue within the AU, and other international organizations, who are dependent on their member states for troops contributions. International law relating to state sovereignty adds further complications.

After giving the Burundian government 96 hours to approve the deployment, the PSC expressed its determination to invoke Article 4(h) of the African Union (AU) Constitutive Act. This stipulates “the right of the Union to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity”. The PSC recommended such an intervention to the Assembly, which ultimately decides on the deployment.

There is, however, widespread debate on this move. One reason stems from the question of under what authority the AU could launch MAPROBU, and whether it would conform to existing international law. Because the mission’s mandate envisions the potential use of force beyond self-defense and in defense of the mission’s mandate, there would be a need for a Security Council Resolution under Chapter 7 of the UN Charter, even if the Burundian government did consent. This, however, is the lesser issue. The AU’s use of article 4(h) would only be permitted if cases of crimes against humanity could be proven. Given the contention over the status of the situation on the ground, this is more challenging to show. The African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ fact-finding mission visited Burundi in December 2015, and the AU’s own human rights observers have also deployed in Bujumbura. It remains to be determined if there is sufficient evidence of these crimes to convince the AU Heads of State to deploy.

The AU has only once deployed under Article 4(h). This was in support of the trial of the former President of Chad, Hissene Habre, on charges of political killings and torture of thousands of civilians between 1982 and 1990. The AU has thus set itself a very high threshold: Article 4(h) was not even used in the situation in Darfur. The likelihood of a deployment in Burundi was always very low. But when the Assembly could not agree, the issue was passed to the AU Heads of State Summit on 27-28 January 2016.

The United Nations Security Council visited Burundi a week before the African leaders met. They left the country stressing the urgency of addressing the situation in Burundi before it deteriorated further and possibly took on ethnic dimensions. The government in Bujumbura countered that their concern was misplaced. The Council members were worried by President Nkurinziza’s lack of willingness to compromise on either the deployment of any AU troops or on the inclusiveness of the dialogue with the opposition. Some had high hopes that the AU Summit might break this impasse.

Words Without Action

Ahead of the meeting, the news from Burundi became increasingly dire. There were reports of mass graves, widespread displacement, growing militias and fears that the country was plunging itself back into a state of civil war. Despite this growing alarm, the deployment of MAPROBU was not approved. Instead, in the face of an escalating crisis, the PSC reversed its December action by not even raising its plan to deploy a peacekeeping force with the AU’s General Assembly.

The summit did not end without any action. Instead of a peacekeeping force, the AU voted to send a high-level panel to Bujumbura to promote “inclusive dialogue”. The panel is still to be appointed and its time frame determined. The AU also revisited its commitment to increase the number of human rights and military observers from under twenty to 100. The first of these observers were deployed after the July 2015 elections, and the force is now being increased to the promised 100. But even this modest move is contingent on approval from Bujumbura. In addition, the East Africa Community (EAC) mediation process will continue, though there is limited hope for this process.

The EAC is the official regional block working with Burundi, acting as mediator in the crisis in line with the AU’s principles of subsidiarity. Ugandan President Yoweri Musuveni is leading this mediation, but he has been criticized for not doing enough to get the talks going. The first round of talks took place in July 2015 but did not render any success. The second round of talks were supposed to happen in December 2015 but were postponed to a later date. It has been speculated that Musuveni’s involvement in the mediation does not have the support of the actors involved in the conflict, considering Musuveni himself amended the Ugandan constitution to remove term limits and is now serving a third term in Uganda.

Obstacles to Deployment

It was no surprise that MAPROBU never deployed. Burundi was always very unlikely to accept the deployment of troops and, if they did, there would be very strict conditions on the deployment and with limited leverage of the mission as a whole. The AU took a similar path when troops were deployed to Darfur in Sudan: the government in Khartoum reluctantly accepted a joint UN-AU Mission in Darfur (UNAMID) to save face internationally, although it has not made things easy for it. But the Darfur mission showed that being flexible on the terms of a deployment aimed at protecting civilians ultimately hampers the effectiveness of the mission.

In addition, it was always going to be a challenge to find the troops to deploy. There has been some confusion over whether this is a task for the African Standby Force (ASF), which is nearing readiness, or whether it should be based on member state contributions. The PSC communiqué of 17 December indicates that MAPROBU will be placed under the command of the special representative of the AU Commission Chairperson, but the PSC also urges consultations with countries in the region within the framework of the East African component of the ASF. It is unknown, however, if the East African Standby Force (EASF) would have troops available for this mission.

If not deployed under the ASF, options for troops are limited. Tanzania is against the deployment in Burundi and is pushing for peace talks to end the conflict. The next option would be South Africa, especially considering their involvement in negotiations in the late 1990s and early 2000s. But South Africa does not have the spare capacity, as its forces are already overstretched with deployments to Darfur and the Congo. Rwanda, the biggest troop contributor to the AU, would be unlikely to contribute to MAPROBU due to the political tensions between the two countries. Uganda is similarly constrained because of its current involvement in South Sudan.

Assuming the troops could be found, there are still key issues regarding agreement over what level of force might be employed by MAPROBU. This is a challenge for all such missions. The latest debate facing the UN is the question of how much force should be used in an intervention, and whether we should be looking toward the model of the EU Battlegroups as a guide, as Ys Reykers recently argued.

How Much Force—and When

If the mission was ultimately to be sent in against the wishes of the Burundi government, the environment would be hostile. It would not be a classic peacekeeping mission, but rather more of a peace enforcement operation. A balance would need to be struck between using force in self-defence, or using force to carry out the mandate. Every peace operation needs robust leadership and political strategy. But when could force be used, and against whom? While 5,000 troops sounds like a large number, it is in actuality very small—especially if the mission had a mandate under Article 4 (h) to protect civilians, which, Raplph Mamiya argues. is a central tenet of peacekeeping missions after the Rwanda and Balkans disasters. It is unclear how long it would take for troop contributors to come to a common understanding about this.

Even if the troops could be found and deployed, questions arise over how the force would be paid for. The AU’s expeditionary deployments, such as in Darfur or Somalia, rely on external support. With one of the major donors the European Union found to be in budgetary crisis as it deals with mass immigration and an influx of refugees, there would be little cash to spare for a mission such as this, which is far removed from the EU’s national interests.

The creation of MAPROBU was a large step forward for the PSC. It demonstrated a politically proactive approach to a crisis, it was focused on protecting civilians, and it was a genuine attempt to prevent further deterioration of an already bad situation. However, the PSC’s inability to carry through on its resolution is a set back. When the decision reached the level of the Assembly of Heads of States, it showed that in the absence of consent there is no political willingness of African leaders to act against their own. Moreover, even if there was, the logistical and financial support does not exist to support such interventions. Ultimately, the action on Burundi gives the strong sentiment that the key institution of peace and security on the continent is more words than action.

Lesley Connolly is a research assistant at the Center on International Cooperation. She is the author of “Then and Now: How the United Nations Peacebuilding Architecture is Meeting its Mandates”, and ‘Picking up the Pieces: Liberia’s Peacebuilding Efforts Post-Ebola Liberia”. | Twitter: @lesleyconnolly3