The AU tried and failed on Burundi. Now it’s time to try again.
Posted on October 10, 2016 by Elissa Jobson
Unless regional and international organisations act in concert and
inject new life into the mediation process, Burundi risks igniting a
The lack of a coordinated response between international bodies on
Burundi has allowed President Nkurunziza (right) to play sides off
against each other. Credit: GCIS.
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
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
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
[Burundi’s cross-ethnic opposition under threat]
[In the shadow of genocides past: can Burundi be pulled back from the brink?]
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
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.
[The choice for the next African Union chairperson is too important to
[Why it doesn’t matter who the next chair of the African Union Commission is]
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.
[Burundi: what can actually be done?]
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
Elissa Jobson is the adviser on African Union Relations for
International Crisis Group, an independent organisation working to
prevent and resolve deadly conflict.
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