The PSC in Burundi: one year on

After placing Burundi at the top of its agenda in 2015 and 2016, so far this year the PSC has failed to address the situation in the country.

Over the past year the situation in Burundi, following the election-related crisis in 2015, has been shifted to the backburner by the Peace and Security Council (PSC). In October Burundi had been included on the agenda of the PSC while it was chaired, paradoxically, by Burundi. The meeting never took place. Meanwhile, the situation in the country has become a bone of contention between African Union (AU) member states and non-African states in both Brussels and Geneva.

The political crisis that began in Burundi in 2015 and the subsequent intervention by the PSC is often seen as an illustration of the dysfunctional nature of the African Union (AU), and its lack of political will. This is because the African heads of state cancelled a decision to deploy a preventive mission in the country in January 2016. On the other hand, the AU’s response to the crisis in Burundi has showcased the full operationalisation of various pillars of the African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA): early warning triggering early action by both the PSC and the AU Commission; the deployment of human rights observers and military experts; and the adoption of sanctions. All of this culminated in the planning of the preventive mission at the regional level of the African Standby Force, in this case the East Africa Brigade.

The fact that these interventions – based on the pillars of the APSA – have so far failed does not necessarily mean that the AU is dysfunctional or that the AU Commission is not doing its job.

The AU’s response to the crisis in Burundi showcased the African Peace and Security Architecture
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An apparent calm in Burundi

In its last decision on Burundi on 6 October 2016, the PSC acknowledged that the situation had improved in Bujumbura and surrounding areas. This view has been corroborated by other observers, who have noted the resumption of normal life in the capital. Some have indicated that the international scrutiny of Burundi has played a role in this recovery, especially after the threat of military intervention.

Yet despite the apparent improvement, the United Nations (UN) Commission of Inquiry on Burundi recently said that it had ‘reasonable grounds to believe that crimes against humanity have been committed and continue to be committed in Burundi since April 2015’. The commission stated that ‘these crimes are taking place in a context of serious human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, sexual violence, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and enforced disappearances’. Clearly, while there are fewer killings, there is continued repression in Burundi.

While there are fewer killings, there is continued repression in Burundi
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Moreover, the number of refugees has continued to grow, from 218 960 refugees in 2015 to 422 387 currently. The UN Refugee Agency has predicted that the number of Burundian refugees could reach 534 000 by the end of the year.

It is, however, not clear that this figure should serve as a benchmark for the evolution of the political situation.

Many actors claim that the refugee flow is largely caused by the economic crisis affecting Burundi, and that people are fleeing economic distress rather than political instability. According to the International Monetary Fund, economic growth in Burundi has been 0% in 2017.

Fewer PSC meetings on Burundi

The reversal of the decision to deploy the African Prevention and Protection Mission to Burundi (MAPROBU) rankled with various stakeholders in Addis Ababa.

Adding insult to injury, the frequency of PSC meetings on Burundi has drastically decreased over the past year. In 2015 the PSC held 10 meetings on Burundi; in 2016, in the aftermath of the January reversal, it met only four times on the issue. Thus far in 2017 the PSC has yet to meet on the country, despite the presence of AU personnel on the ground – the only representatives of an international body monitoring developments in Burundi.

A total of 45 human rights observers and eight military experts are deployed in Burundi. Not only are these figures far below the 200 decided by the PSC in February 2016, but the agreed-upon Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the Burundian government and the AU has still not been signed. Therefore, in addition to the limited logistical means at their disposal, hampering their mobility, these AU staff members also operate on fragile legal grounds. The situation is more acute for the military experts who are supposed to oversee the disarmament of militias but who cannot operate effectively without clear rules of engagement.

The agreed-upon MoU between the Burundian government and the AU has still not been signed
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Furthermore, at the AU there is a lack of clarity on the political strategy that the deployment and reporting of these observers and military experts are supposed to serve. At the last PSC meeting on Burundi in October 2016, the three pillars of the AU’s policy on Burundi since January 2015 was spelled out: providing support to the East African Community (EAC) mediation led by former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa; urging the Burundian government to sign the MoU with the AU on the human rights observers and military experts; and calling upon the government to address human rights violations, among others.

EAC mediation in a deadlock

Since the PSC supports the mediation by the EAC, any action at the continental level depends on the progress made by the regional body. Earlier this year, the EAC facilitator stated that the negotiations were at a deadlock, pointing to the intransigence of the government.

So far, progress has been limited because of the refusal of the government to engage with the opposition coalition Conseil National pour le respect de l'Accord d'Arusha pour la Paix et de l’État de Droit (CNARED, or National Council for the Respect of the Arusha Agreement and Rule of Law). The government says several supporters of the failed coup d’état in May 2015 are members of the CNARED.

But stakeholders still hold diverging views  about the purpose of the mediation in the aftermath of the controversial re-election of President Pierre Nkurunziza in 2015.

Several opposition groups are still questioning Nkurunziza’s legitimacy two years after his re-election. Meanwhile, some regional actors and the AU wish to focus on the 2020 elections and the consolidation of the Arusha Agreement.

Opposition groups are still questioning Nkurunziza’s legitimacy
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In addition, perceptions of the problem differ among neighbouring countries. Tanzania, which was the first to object to the deployment of MAPROBU, seems to view the Burundian crisis from a domestic perspective. President John Magufuli has put pressure on Burundian refugees, calling on them to return to their own country now that the situation there has calmed.

According to researchers Yolande Bouka and Nanjala Nyabola, there is a lack of consensus among EAC heads of state on how to address the crisis in Burundi. This is mainly because of domestic issues associated with the issue of third terms.

The return of the peace versus justice debate

In late October 2017 the Burundian government proposed to amend the constitution in order to remove both term limitations and references to the Arusha Agreement, and to create the position of prime minister. The ethnic quotas in the army and Parliament, based on the Arusha Agreement, remain in place.

A referendum is tentatively scheduled for early 2018. It is unclear how the PSC will react to the proposed changes eliminating key provisions of the Arusha Agreement, of which the AU is guarantor.

There is clearly a limited appetite for Burundi at the level of ambassadors in Addis Ababa
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There is clearly a limited appetite for Burundi at the level of ambassadors in the PSC in Addis Ababa. The only relevant decision-making forum on Burundi is now the AU Assembly of heads of state and government. However, it is uncertain whether, in the current context, other heads of state will adopt a path of action that differs from the wait-and-see approach that has prevailed since January 2016.

There is a growing risk that the focus on Burundi is now shifting from the dynamics of the crisis to a spat between the AU and its partners on the issue of human rights. The AU resents what it believes to be the overly legalistic approach of the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi. The commission recommended that the Burundi situation be referred to the International Criminal Court (ICC) – a very unpopular organisation at the AU.

This comes against the background of the NATO intervention in Libya and its aftermath.  The ICC indictment of Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir has undeniably strengthened his status among his peers, to the detriment not only of the quest for a fair and equitable peace but also of justice for the victims of the Darfur conflict. The fact that Burundi just withdrew from the Statute of Rome could strengthen this shift away from the heart of the matter.

The current crisis further shows the limited options for the PSC in both the Eastern and Central regions, which are dominated by former armed groups that are less open to political pluralism and tend to consolidate their rule in a way that does not necessarily fit with the AU’s framework on democracy, governance and human rights.

Options for the PSC

The PSC should define the goal of the current mediation in Burundi in the post-2015 election context
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If the PSC wants to have an impact on the situation in Burundi, various options could be considered. First, the PSC should assess the progress of the mediation efforts and consider taking steps to improve their effectiveness. In this regard, in line with the PSC decision on Burundi last year, the facilitator should brief the body on the challenges he is facing. Another question that could be addressed is: what leverage does the PSC have when a regional body fails to deliver?

Second, the PSC should define the goal of the current mediation in Burundi in the post-2015 election context. Is it about safeguarding the Arusha Agreement? Or is it to consolidate the governance of elections and address the closure of the political space?

Third, the PSC could consider adopting measures ensuring that the coming electoral consultations in Burundi respect the basic principles of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance. It has yet to be seen whether the PSC has the leverage to ensure that these principles are enforced, and whether its members are willing to implement it.

Picture: European Commission DG ECHO

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