The African Union Is Unlikely to Intervene in Burundi

Bujumbura, Burundi (TFC) – In the closing days of 2015, the African Union voted to deploy a peacekeeping force in Burundi. This action was in response to the instability and infighting that has gripped the nation since Pierre Nkurunziza made his controversial decision to run for a third term as president. The African Union’s decision to deploy peacekeepers, however, was not welcomed by Nkurunziza who threatened to attack any foreign forces deployed to Burundi. Amidst concerns that the country could slide into civil war, there has been intense pressure for the African Union to intervene. However, actual prospects for an African Union intervention are highly questionable.

The current crisis in Burundi has roots in the Burundian Civil War, which started around the time of the Rwandan Genocide. In 2005, the civil war ended and Nkurunziza, who was a rebel leader, was elected as president by the legislative branch. Nkurunziza was elected to a second term in 2010 by popular referendum. However, during his second term, there were rumors that he would run for a third term in 2015. This is problematic, however, because the Burundian constitution only allows a president to serve two five-year terms.

Nkurunziza’s announcement that he would run for a third term was met with domestic protests and international condemnation. The protesters argued that a third term is unconstitutional and demanded that Nkurunziza stand down. Nkurunziza responded to these protests with a crackdown against protesters, journalists, and human rights activists. Soon afterwards, the Constitutional Court approved Nkurunziza’s bid for the presidency. They claimed that Nkurunziza’s first five years in office didn’t actually constitute a term in office because he was appointed by the legislature instead of being elected by the people. As a result, they concluded that Nkurunziza had actually only served one term and thus was eligible for re-election.

A week later, elements of the military and the police forces attempted to stage a coup while Nkurunziza was out of the country, claiming that they wanted to depose Nkurunziza and restore democracy. This coup, however, was quashed and many of the coup’s organizers, with the notable exception of its leader Godefroid Niyombare, were arrested. The presidential election went ahead less than six weeks later, with Nkurunziza claiming victory.

Image Source: US Army Africa, Flickr, Creative Commons Maj. Gen. Hogg visits Burundi, September 2010 U.S. Army Africa Commander, Gen. David R. Hogg, meets with Burundian Defense Forces leaders, September, 2010.

Image Source: US Army Africa, Flickr, Creative Commons
Maj. Gen. Hogg visits Burundi, September 2010
U.S. Army Africa Commander, Gen. David R. Hogg, meets with Burundian Defense Forces leaders, September, 2010.

Following the election, a low-intensity conflict simmered in Burundi with many government officials, Nkurunziza supporters, and opposition activists being targeted for assassination. In the wake of this violence, the international community called for calm. Diplomatic efforts were also stepped up and the Ugandan president, Yoweri Museveni, offered to mediate peace talks between Nkurunziza and the opposition. These peace talks have faced many difficulties and, thus far, have failed to make any progress. Violence spiked again late last year after clashes between the military and the opposition killed at least 87 people.

Following this uptick in violence, the Peace and Security Council (PSC) of the African Union (which is similar in structure and function to the UN Security Council) approved the deployment of a 5,000 strong peacekeeping mission to Burundi. This peacekeeping force, the African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi (MAPROBU), has been authorized to maintain a secure and peaceful environment in Burundi, to protect civilians, to support diplomatic efforts to end the conflict, to enforce any future peace agreement, and to protect African Union personnel. The PSC, anticipating that Burundi would reject MAPROBU, also cited the Constitutive Act (Article 4, Section h) and the Protocol Relating to the Establishment of the Peace and Security Council (Article 7, Section e), which allow for unilateral intervention in cases of war crimes, crimes against humanity, and genocide.

Although the African Union has a legal basis for intervening in Burundi, their actual ability to carry out this mandate is questionable.  The first obstacle to intervention is political as Burundi  has a certain level of clout within the African Union that it can use to undermine attempts at military intervention.  For example, Burundi is currently sitting on the PSC and is currently donating troops to other African Union peacekeeping missions.  This gives Burundi political leverage that it can use to attempt to derail the proposed intervention.  However, Burundi may have expended much of its political capital as Tanzania, its powerful neighbor who also sits on the PSC, has changed its mind and is now in favor of the peacekeeping mission.

However, despite a possible shift in the political landscape in favor of intervention, the viability of the mission is far from certain.  A major obstacle to intervention is the sourcing of funding for MAPROBU.  Peacekeeping missions are very costly to operate and require a steady source of funding.  However, numerous countries in the African Union rely on foreign aid to support their budgets or have their own domestic security threats.  In addition, this conflict has largely been contained to Burundi and, with the exception of the resulting refugee crisis, has yet to create transnational problems or security threats.  As a result, it is unlikely that many countries will have the resources or incentives to volunteer funding.

Sourcing soldiers to man MAPROBU will also be a challenge as many of the countries that have historically donated troops to peacekeeping missions are reluctant to do so in Burundi.  Burundian soldiers serving in other African Union peacekeeping missions obviously cannot be deployed.   Rwanda, who hinted at support for an intervention and often contributes to peacekeeping missions, has decided against donating troops to this particular mission.  Even though Tanzania now openly supports intervention, it is unclear whether it will donate troops.  Lastly, South Africa, has already donated troops to other peacekeeping missions and thus is unlikely to donate even more.  As a result, it is unclear where the troops needed for this peacekeeping mission will come from.

These issues pose serious questions for the viability of an African Union peacekeeping mission in Burundi.  Many, including the African Union, have appealed to the UN Security Council to provide support for the peacekeeping mission.  However, recent reports indicate that the Security Council is in no position to provide meaningful assistance.  As a result, prospects for an intervention are dim under the current circumstances.

This revelation would naturally lead one to question why the African Union would even bother to call for an intervention.  There are numerous possibilities, however, I personally believe that the African Union is using the threat of intervention as a way of putting political pressure on Nkurunziza, who has been reluctant to participate in negotiations.  It would thus appear that the African Union is using the threat of intervention to attempt to bring Nkurunziza to the negotiating table.  A recent tweet from the African Union clearly demonstrates their desire to resolve the conflict through negotiations, which is consistent with this theory:

That being said, the situation on the ground is constantly changing and I believe that escalation of the conflict or its spread beyond Burundi’s borders might trigger greater support for an intervention.

The African Union’s response to the Burundi crisis is very important because it is the first time,  in the organization’s history, that they are attempting intervene in a country that has openly threatened to resist.  As a result, African Union peacekeeping is now in uncharted territory.  Only the coming days, weeks, and months will reveal what course of action the African Union will take.  However, regardless of what decision they make, it will set a precedent that will likely affect African Union peacekeeping for years to come.