In hindsight: Policy lessons from the PSC's efforts in Burundi

The backtracking by PSC heads of state on a force for Burundi has raised serious questions about the council's capacity to intervene in crises.

At the Peace and Security Council (PSC) summit on 29 January 2016 in Addis Ababa, the 15 heads of state and government who are members of the PSC suspended the decision taken by this body one month earlier to send a force to Burundi to halt the deteriorating security situation in the country. This move has raised many questions.

There are also lessons to be learnt about decision making within the PSC. Clearly, the heads of state of the African Union (AU) are not ready to intervene in a member state without its consent.

What exactly happened between the December 2015 decision by AU ambassadors to send a force to Burundi and the subsequent suspension of the mission by the PSC heads of state a month later? Was the initial decision not well thought through? Did the PSC ambassadors not have a clear idea whether AU heads of state would go ahead with it, even without consent from Bujumbura? And what does it say about the use of drastic measures, such as Article 4(h) of the AU Constitutive Act, to intervene in a member state?

Whereas the PSC on 17 December 2015 called for the deployment of an African Mission for Prevention and Protection in Burundi (MAPROBU), even without the consent of the host government, the heads of state have now backtracked on this audacious stance. The communiqué issued by the PSC after two weeks of further negotiations at the AU included the following decisions: 

The high-level delegation travelled to Burundi on 26 February and no mention was made of MAPROBU
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The fate of MAPROBU remains uncertain. The press release naming the high-level delegation (the presidents of Mauritania, Senegal, Gabon and South Africa, and the prime minister of Ethiopia) states its mandate as ‘to consult with the Government, as well as with other Burundian actors, on the inclusive dialogue and the deployment of the African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi (MAPROBU), if accepted by the Government of Burundi’. The high-level delegation travelled to Burundi on 26 February and no mention was made of MAPROBU. A planned field mission of PSC members – from 20–22 February – was cancelled.

Tactical retreat

Apart from sending a high-level delegation, the AU’s only other task is to assist the East African Community (EAC) with the inter-Burundian dialogue and obtain international support in this regard. This new stance is a break with the last few months, when the AU took the lead in supporting stronger international action in Burundi by, among others, sending a special envoy of the AU Commission chairperson and deploying human rights observers and military experts.

Despite the confusion surrounding the AU’s actions on Burundi, several lessons can be drawn from this episode. This crisis has tested various principles and instruments of the Architecture for Peace and Security in Africa (APSA). The last PSC summit highlighted four challenges: the implementation of Article 4(h), the principle of subsidiarity; the decision-making process at the PSC; and the fight to assert continental interests over national preferences.

Article 4h: the end of a deterrent

This new stance is a break with the last few months, when the AU took the lead
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Since the creation of the AU, Article 4h has been considered a break with the Organization of African Unity’s tradition of non-intervention, especially after what transpired in Rwanda in 1994. The indirect invocation of ‘4h’ contributed to the specific nature of the PSC decision in December. By calling the PSC’s bluff and uniting enough hesitant heads of state, the Burundian government has revealed the challenges in implementing this article. As the Institute for Security Studies has stated, the deployment of a peacekeeping force without consent raised more questions than it answered.

For many heads of state, this proposed deployment was a red line because it was associated with regime change. Moreover, the situation in Burundi was not considered as serious as the other crises in Somalia, Libya or South Sudan. In this regard, the PSC decision of 17 December contained a slight contradiction. While it referred to Article 4h to impose the deployment of MAPROBU, the force was a preventive mission corresponding to scenario 4 of the African Standby Force rather than scenario 6, which is designed to stop genocide and crimes against humanity.

Beside these circumstantial elements, many questions were raised during the PSC summit about the implications of a deployment without consent. How does one intervene in a country where the ruling government still has a broad political base? Are its supporters considered enemies of peace and security? How does one ensure the safety of the opposition during the deployment? The suspension of MAPROBU provides an opportunity to think about the modalities of implementing Article 4h. Most heads of state seemingly consider it to be a deterrent and a tool of last resort. In the absence of consensus on the gravity of the situation in Burundi, the invocation of Article 4h was thus not considered credible.

Limits of subsidiarity

Over the years, regional mechanisms (RMs) have taken the lead in managing crises on the continent. The problem with this approach is that its proximity to the theatre of conflict makes the regional body both more legitimate and more wary of the conflict dynamics. Therefore, the AU is trapped into supporting regional efforts in solving various crises. In Burundi, subsidiarity achieved few results. The EAC leaders could not halt the controversial presidential and general elections last year.

For many heads of state, this proposed deployment was a red line
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The mediation led by the Ugandan president also has not led to an inclusive dialogue between the parties. During a retreat in Abuja last year, the PSC and the regional economic communities (RECs) decided ‘in [a] case where the REC/RM concerned does not have a common approach on how to address a specific conflict/crisis situation, the peace-making responsibility shall revert to the PSC’. This approach does not take account of the possibility of a regional body’s failure to achieve results. In such a context, the AU does not have the option to take over the mediation process without disavowing the subsidiarity principle. Moreover, proximity – supposedly an asset – can become a liability. For example, the hypothetical deployment of a Rwandan contingent in the framework of MAPROBU would have been highly controversial due to the tensions between the two governments.

Decision making inside the PSC: consensus versus unanimity

Traditionally, the PSC relies on consensus in making decisions. The underlying principle of this method is that every decision is taken in the continental interest, rather than looking to the outcome of narrower foreign policies. Thus, any hesitation by a member state hinders decisions taken by the PSC. Tanzania’s public reservations about the December decision thereby prepared the ground for the suspension of MAPROBU a month later.

The mediation led by the Ugandan president has not led to an inclusive dialogue
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In a way, the practice of consensus in the PSC tends more towards unanimity. In this perspective, a discording voice is more likely to be heard over an acquiescent one. Over the last few months, those in opposition to and reluctant about MAPROBU have been more vocal than those in favour. This raises the question of whether the PSC should vote more regularly. Indeed, the current state of affairs at the PSC – characterised by an overreliance on consensus – dilutes national accountability for decisions often motivated by domestic concerns. Such a change has the potential to make member states more accountable for their decisions at the continental level. It would also reduce the occurrence of reversal by member states.

Attempt to champion continental interests over national preferences

The suspension of MAPROBU by the heads of state could be explained by a trend we call ‘Addisization’. ‘Addisization’ is the fact that decisions taken at the level of the AU in Addis Ababa increasingly defend continental interests – defined by the values included in the Constitutive Act and the African Charter of Democracy, Elections and Governance – rather than national preferences.

The decision-making process at the PSC contributes to this trend. The Peace and Security Department enjoys pre-eminence in the drafting of solutions to crises, whereas national representatives do not have the institutional and human resources to fulfil this role. Even if drafted decisions are amended by member states, the AU Commission frames the debate and selects policy options in line with the aforementioned continental interests. The social ties among AU officials and delegation members contribute to creating a close-knit community that shares the same set of beliefs, values and conceptions of the instruments needed to tackle crises on the continent.

Moreover, since this so-called community sees itself as having a mission, every crisis is viewed as an opportunity to strengthen the APSA. This trend is even more visible since the regional organisations dispute any pre-eminence the AU might have in the resolution of crises on the continent.

Gap between capitals and diplomats in Addis

Traditionally, the PSC relies on consensus in making decisions
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The trend toward ‘Addisization’ can explain the gap observed between capitals and diplomatic representatives about Burundi over the last two months. Whereas the 17 December decision saw consensus among member states in Addis Ababa, it did not in many capitals. In Addis Ababa, creating a preventive mission was merely a logical step after sending a special envoy and deploying military experts and human rights observers amid the deterioration of the crisis in early December in Burundi.

In a way, the decision was taken on technical grounds, while the political aspects were understated. In this regard, following the PSC’s decision Commissioner Smail Chergui stressed that the purpose of the mission was to protect the Burundian people, and downplayed its political implications. However, these considerations were prevalent in the perception of many capitals about a hypothetical deployment in Burundi without the consent of the government.

It is important to remember that these factors (a normative community, the view of crises as opportunities) are used by the European Union (EU) in operationalising its security and defence policy through military interventions in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Chad.

Such a process could not occur in the AU for two reasons; the first being the requirement of unanimity inside the organisation on decisions taken by the PSC. In the case of the EU, Germany’s reluctance did not stop the deployment of a force in Chad and the Central African Republic in 2008, since a number of countries supported it. In the AU, the hesitation among some heads of state led to the suspension of MAPROBU.

Second, the regionalisation of the African Standby Force constitutes another constraint in a situation when there is no consensus among member states. The division among EAC states makes the deployment of a force unlikely without the consent of Burundi. Had the African Capability for Immediate Reponses to Crises been the dominant concept of the APSA, such an option would have been plausible, because it relies on voluntary contributions and the principle of a willing lead nation.

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