Burundi crisis: time for South Africa to lead

As violence continues to escalate, Burundi is running out of time. Key countries like South Africa must advocate for bold intervention to prevent the worst.

Next week, the annual African Union (AU) Summit takes place at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa. Not generally an event which generates ground-breaking policy, this summit could (and should) be historic: it will be the first time that heads of state will vote on the deployment of an AU-led peacekeeping force to a country that has not agreed to its deployment. That country is Burundi, and the decision to deploy was made by the 15-member Peace and Security Council (PSC) on 17 December last year.

Burundi has been sliding towards ever greater instability since President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to push forward with a third mandate last year.

Nkurunziza’s interpretation of the constitution – he argued that he is entitled to a third term because his first one was a special, post-transition mandate – was contested by civil society and the political opposition, and sparked widespread protests ahead of the June/July election.

Despite winning the controversial election, the government has pursued a hard-line strategy towards human rights activists, the political opposition and the independent media – essentially eliminating any dissenting voices in the country. Since July, the crisis has only grown more acute. Few now believe that things will simply settle down again, and hundreds of opposition politicians, civil society activists and journalists are currently in exile in Rwanda, Kenya or Belgium. This is in addition to the 240 000 Burundians who have fled the country and now live as refugees in neighbouring countries.

Next week’s AU summit should be historic, as heads of state vote on the Burundi deployment

There have been hundreds of killings and murders by the security services, which the government denies. Insecurity is widespread within the capital Bujumbura and increasingly in the rural areas. Civilians are subjected to the whims of the security forces, which randomly target especially young men and accuse them of supporting the armed opposition, which is now also contributing to the insecurity through acts of violence. In areas where the protest movement has been strongest, residents have had to steel themselves for the increasingly regular sight of bullet-riddled corpses lying discarded on the streets.

Last week the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, also called attention to incidents of sexual violence, disappearances and allegations about the existence of mass graves. Al-Hussein further warned that the violence might take on an ethnic dimension, saying: ‘This is an indication that a complete breakdown in law and order is just around the corner and, with armed opposition groups also becoming more active, and the potentially lethal ethnic dimension starting to rear its head, this will inevitably end in disaster if the current rapidly deteriorating trajectory continues.’

The PSC decision is bold, and it is in response to these growing horrors. AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, together with PSC Commissioner Smaïl Chergui, have in the last few months led the AU’s increasingly uncompromising response towards the Burundian crisis – likely recognising that time is running out if greater violence is to be averted.

The Burundian government appears taken aback by this strong stance. Foreign Minister Alain Nyamitwe told the Institute for Security Studies in November that the AU’s reaction was disproportionate.

The AU’s response recognises that time is running out if greater violence is to be averted

But Article 4(H) of the AU Constitutive Act – on which the PSC is basing its decision, and the 2007 African Charter on Elections and Governance, are critical tools for addressing instability and conflict on the continent. Key aspects of the charter address precisely the type of situation that Burundi now finds itself in: a slide into generalised insecurity and instability so great that it threatens the country and the region. Article 4 and the charter are cornerstones of the normative shift that accompanied the transition from the old Organization of African Union to today’s AU; from the principle of non-interference, to one of non-indifference.

On the international stage, largely out of necessity, the debate has moved on from the outcome of the election to trying to avert a much greater crisis. What is now of grave concern, is what has happened in the aftermath of the mandate debate: the disintegration of the rule of law, the transformation of a government into one that attacks its population and refuses to engage in constructive dialogue with its critics, and the emergence of an armed opposition which may also no longer be committed to a peaceful resolution of the crisis.

Next week, the continent’s commitment to these principles will be put to the test. One country that should be front and centre is South Africa; for several reasons.

First, South Africa was a key champion of the African Charter on Democracy and Human Rights and the shift to the non-indifference principle. Now is the chance to take that one step further. Second, South Africa played the leading role in mediating the Burundi crisis and is a guarantor of the Arusha Peace Accords that underpin the Burundian constitution. It knows what Burundi stands to lose if a resolution is not found.

Third, South Africa also played a crucial role in the development of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA), of which the PSC is a pillar. Fourth, the proposed deployment is an example of Africa taking charge of its own issues and finding African solutions to African problems – a leitmotif of the South African government, and Dlamini-Zuma.

Fifth, South Africa has already committed significant resources to peace and stability in the Great Lakes region through its deployment of troops to the Force Intervention Brigade in the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Chaos in Burundi means more chaos in the DRC, which undermines South Africa’s own objectives.

South Africa has a historical responsibility to champion an initiative to curb bloodshed in Burundi

And finally, although admittedly diminished in recent years, South Africa remains a moral authority on democratic values, on equality, human rights and freedom of expression.

For all of these reasons, South Africa’s voice on the Burundi crisis should be heard, loud and clear, in support of mechanisms that can restore the rule of law and stability.

South African President Jacob Zuma – who played a key role in the Burundi peace talks – did not mention the country in his address to the African National Congress two weeks ago, nor has he made any statements on the proposed AU deployment.

The Department of International Relations and Cooperation’s statement of 18 December 2015 does not explicitly refer to the proposed AU force deployment, but does call for the ‘urgent strengthening and increased deployment by the AU Peace and Security Council of military, human rights and police observers,’ a reference to the handful of AU observers who were deployed in 2015.

South Africa is on the PSC, so it will have been party to the discussions and the decision in favour of the deployment. But the PSC operates on consensus, and it is not clear what exactly South Africa’s thinking might be. It is possible that South Africa is reticent to vote in favour of the deployment because it fears alienating other Central African presidents – notably close ally, Congolese President Joseph Kabila, but also Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Denis Sassou-Nguesso of the Republic of Congo – who are all manoeuvring for mandate extensions.

South Africa may also be reluctant to alienate countries which do not support the Burundi deployment because they do not want to set a precedent for AU military intervention against a government’s will. If that is the case, then – much like with the International Criminal Court issue – South Africa has chosen solidarity with African heads of state over its domestic principles of justice and over solidarity with African populations.

The AU deployment faces many hurdles, not least garnering approval from a two-thirds majority of AU member states. Even if this seems like a long shot, South Africa has an opportunity and, many would say, a historical responsibility to champion an initiative that aims to prevent worse bloodshed in both Burundi and the Great Lakes region.

Stephanie Wolters, Head, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division, ISS

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