from Africa in Transition

Sitting on Tied Hands: The African Union & Burundi

February 12, 2016

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Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

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Tyler Falish is an intern for the Council on Foreign Relations Africa Studies program, and a student in Fordham University’s Graduate Program in International Political Economy & Development.

On February 6, four people—including a child—were killed and twelve injured in a coordinated grenade attack in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura. Republican Forces of Burundi (FOREBU), an armed group opposed to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s third term bid, claimed involvement in separate attacks on February 5. The recent violence continues a trend that began nine months ago, when Nkurunziza first announced his intention to seek a third term.

On February 4, the African Union (AU) announced the appointment of five African heads of state to a panel tasked with convincing Nkurunziza to accept a proposed AU peacekeeping mission, called the African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi (MAPROBU). Nkurunziza has vehemently expressed his opposition to the proposal—discussion around which did not until recently directly include him—and there’s little reason to believe that the panel will change his mind. Further, there is no timeline yet associated with the panel’s charge.

Despite the recent release of compelling evidence that Burundi’s security forces extrajudicially killed dozens of people on December 11, the AU has backpedaled since the December approval to send five thousand troops to Burundi under MAPROBU. Why the change of heart? In the AU’s Constitutive Act, Article 4(h) grants the AU the right to intervene in a member state, given an Assembly decision “in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.” The Peace and Security Council (PSC), which, unlike the United Nations Security Council (UNSC), is composed of members elected to three- or five-year terms, invoked Article 4(h) when it initially approved MAPROBU. So one can assume that the AU’s December fact-finding mission found evidence of “grave circumstances.” But the authorization requires an affirmative Assembly decision—as well as the explicit backing of the UNSC—and driven by the Burundi government’s opposition, the AU failed to authorize the proposal at the recently concluded summit in Addis Ababa. This could indicate the PSC has little sense of the AU membership’s collective pulse. Meanwhile, Burundi won reelection to its PSC seat, running unopposed in the East Africa region.

After the failed vote, PSC Commissioner Smail Chergui said, “There is will neither to occupy nor to attack,” but one could question the will of member states to participate in MAPROBU at all, especially without Burundi’s permission, as Nkurunziza has stated he would consider MAPROBU an invading force. If executed, the mission would likely be staffed by soldiers from Burundi’s immediate neighbors via the Eastern Africa Standby Force (EASF). Questions remain as to the capacity of the EASF, but Director Ismail Chanfi announced in December that EASF “forces are ready for engagement to maintain the peace process in the region, anytime.”

While the AU spins its diplomatic wheels, and the UNSC encourages “inclusive dialogue,” violence and unrest continue in Burundi. A leaked UN report suggests Rwanda is providing military training to Burundian rebels, which, whether true or not, will only strengthen Nkurunziza’s cries against “invasion.” In the “African Year of Human Rights,” the way the AU handles the situation in Burundi— with kid gloves or a firm hand—will stand testament to the strength of the Union and its resolve to pursue “African Solutions for African Problems.”

More on:

Sub-Saharan Africa

Wars and Conflict

International Organizations

Regional Organizations

Burundi

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