African Union Declines to Intervene in Burundi Despite International Pressure

Bujumbura, Burundi (TFC) – Previously, I wrote an article arguing that the African Union was unlikely to deploy a peacekeeping mission in Burundi.  I essentially argued that the African Union would struggle to source the necessary troops for the mission but also alluded to the possibility that an intervention could happen if the conflict escalated further.  With few signs of progress towards peace, the international community took many important steps towards intervention in the last few days.  However, despite these steps taken towards the deployment of a peacekeeping mission, the African Union has decided not to intervene.

In April 2015, President Nkurunziza announced his candidacy for a third term as president.  This action, which violates the Burundian constitution, was met with protests which were suppressed with a heavy handed crackdown.  This crackdown provoked a low intensity conflict that many fear could degenerate into ethnic conflict.  In December 2015, the African Union approved the deployment of a peacekeeping mission to Burundi to stabilize the country and quell the violence that has plagued the nation.  President Nkurunziza quickly responded to this announcement with threats to attack any foreign troops that are deployed.

I previously argued that a peacekeeping mission would likely be infeasible because the UN was reportedly unprepared to support the mission.  However, the last few days have seen numerous developments in Burundi.  Amnesty International released a report alleging that people killed by the security services were being secretly buried in mass graves.  In addition, two foreign journalists were arrested in a security operation and were later released, though their notes and equipment were seized.

The events of the last few days may have increased international support for an intervention in Burundi.  Samantha Power, the American ambassador to the UN and a long-time human rights scholar, has emphasized the need for foreign intervention in Burundi.

Ban Ki-Moon, the Secretary General of the UN, recently spoke in front of a summit of African Union leaders to express support for the deployment of a peacekeeping mission.  Ban Ki-Moon also met with South African President Jacob Zuma to discuss the crisis in Burundi.  This is important because any peacekeeping mission would likely have to be led by South African troops, which are amongst the most capable of the African militaries.  However, Jacob Zuma has already committed troops to various UN peacekeeping missions and thus far has declined to decisively indicate whether or not he is open to donating South African troops to the proposed AU peacekeeping mission.

However, despite increased international pressure, the African Union scuttled their plans to intervene in Burundi.  The Peace and Security Council was the body of the African Union that originally authorized the peacekeeping mission.  However, in January 2016, the terms of all of the 15 countries on the council ended.  As a result, elections were held to determine which countries would sit on the council.  This election resulted in some changes to the membership of the council, which altered the political landscape.

Image Source: US Army Africa, Flickr, Creative Commons Burundi soldiers arrive in Central African Republic

Image Source: US Army Africa, Flickr, Creative Commons
Burundi soldiers arrive in Central African Republic

Following the election, Burundi called on other countries to reject the deployment of an AU intervention force.  This topic has became very contentious at the African Union summit where the Peace and Security Council hosted a final vote on whether to deploy the peacekeeping force.  Ahead of the vote, it appeared that support for the peacekeeping mission was contested.  The President of Gambia voiced opposition to it and a senior AU diplomat claimed that no peacekeeping mission would be deployed without Burundi’s permission.  Burundi also claimed, ahead of the vote, that the Peace and Security Council would fail to obtain the 2/3 supermajority that it needed to approve an intervention.  Burundi was correct and the Peace and Security Council decided that a peacekeeping mission would only proceed if the Burundian government were to consent to it.

With the AU’s decision there are few other options for intervening in the crisis.  Following the Peace and Security Council vote, the African Union decided to focus on diplomacy and peace talks to end the conflict.  However, given that peace talks have made no progress, I am very pessimistic about its prospect.  The UN Security Council could deploy its own peacekeeping mission.  However, doing so would require a UN Security Council resolution which is difficult to obtain.  It would also be difficult to source funding, supplies, and soldiers for the mission and it is unlikely that Burundi’s neighbors would cooperate.  The mission would also face opposition from the AU and would likely be attacked by the Burundian military.  As a result, intervention by the UN would appear to be infeasible, for the time being.

The world has once again failed to act in response to civil war and the threat of genocide.  I fear that this will only escalate the conflict as the Burundian government will feel that it can act with impunity.  This will also likely force the opposition to go on the offensive as they now have no other alternative paths to peace.  There is a serious risk that this conflict will spiral out of control, breakdown along ethnic lines, and spill over the border to destabilize other countries.  Sadly, the world has decided to not to act and has turned its back on the suffering of the Burundian people.  As a result, we can only hope that the country doesn’t slide back into civil war and genocide.