When the African Union threatened to force a peacekeeping mission, Burundi called its bluff — and threw the pan-African body’s credibility into question in the process.
NAIROBI — A week after Burundian security services responded to a rebel attack by rounding up and executing dozens of suspected insurgents on Dec. 12, 2015, allegedly dumping their bodies in shallow mass graves in the capital, the African Union surprised observers by authorizing a 5,000-strong peacekeeping mission and threatening to deploy it over the objections of the Burundian government.
The move was hailed as a shrewd form of coercive diplomacy and a sign that the African Union might be better prepared than the United Nations to respond to the escalating crisis in Burundi. As top Western and U.N. diplomats wrung their hands over the threat of mass atrocities, the AU’s authorization of the African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi (MAPROBU) stood out as an exemplar of the AU’s mantra of “African solutions for African problems.”
That was before last weekend’s AU summit in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, where high-minded ideas about continental solutions ran headlong into the crude political realities of an institution that has long been accused of prioritizing the interests of member heads of state over all else. Led by aging and unaccountable strongmen like Gambian President Yahya Jammeh, who came out publicly against MAPROBU at the summit, the AU Assembly, the organization’s highest decision-making authority comprising heads of state, decided not to deploy the proposed peacekeeping mission and walked back the AU’s threat to force it on the Burundian government.
“It has been, I think, bad communication. It was never the intention of the African Union to deploy a mission to Burundi without the consent of Burundian authorities,” Ibrahima Fall, the AU special representative for the Great Lakes region, told French radio RFI on Sunday. “This is unimaginable.”
Established in 2001 to replace the Organization of African Unity (OAU), the original pan-African association of the postcolonial era, the African Union has played a much more aggressive role than its predecessor in solving the continent’s myriad armed conflicts. In the words of Alpha Oumar Konaré, former chairman of the AU Commission, it has replaced the OAU’s doctrine of “non-interference” in the affairs of member states with one of “non-indifference.”
But the AU still has never fully embraced the role of continental police force. Although it has supplied more than 64,000 uniformed peacekeepers to missions in Africa, and launched major peace support operations in Darfur, Somalia, and Mali, among other places, every peacekeeper that has deployed under the green AU banner to date has done so at the invitation of the host government.
There was a chance that would change over the weekend, when a two-thirds majority of the Assembly could have voted to override the Burundian government’s objections and deploy MAPROBU without its consent. (An article of the African Union’s Constitutive Act allows it to impose an unwanted peacekeeping presence on a member state in order to prevent “war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.”) As a result, the annual summit in Addis Ababa was viewed by some as a trial of the 54-nation body’s resolve.
“This is a grave test of AU credibility, and of the continent’s ability to solve its own problems,” Sudanese-British philanthropist and telecom mogul Mo Ibrahim wrote last week in an open letter co-signed by five other entrepreneurs and human rights activists. “Failure to act now would dent the reputation of the institution and those at its helm.”
By that standard, the demise of MAPROBU amounts to a stain on the AU’s legacy. Not only did the Assembly fail to stand behind the ultimatum issued by the AU’s Peace and Security Council (PSC), its main peace and security organ, but it failed to secure an agreement on alternative measures, such as the deployment of investigators or human rights observers, that might have helped de-escalate the conflict in the absence of a peacekeeping mission.
“If you’re not going to deploy troops, then, at the very least, [deploy] investigators,” said Yolande Bouka, a researcher focusing on the Great Lakes region at the Institute for Security Studies in Nairobi. “And that’s the challenge with that response, saying [the AU] never intended to deploy those troops without the Burundian government’s authorization — that first it makes the AU look weaker because we all knew what it meant when it was said. And two, it raises questions about whether the African Union has the capacity or the political will to ever implement this possibility of deployment without consent.”
It was not the first time the African Union’s preoccupation with state sovereignty has put it at odds with Western powers and human rights campaigners. The continental body has become a prime venue for airing criticisms of the International Criminal Court, which, since its establishment in 2002, has focused nearly all of its investigations on Africa. AU member states campaigned vigorously against the prosecution of Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta for crimes allegedly committed during the country’s post-election violence in 2007-2008, and in 2013 the body declared that no sitting head of state should face trial in an international tribunal.
But the decision not to intervene in Burundi comes at a perilous time for that country, which has been wracked by low-level violence ever since President Pierre Nkurunziza sought a third term in office last April, a move his critics claimed was unconstitutional. His government crushed popular protests and weathered a coup attempt in May. In July, Nkurunziza was re-elected with 69 percent of the vote in an election that was condemned by the international community. Since then, an armed opposition has emerged, calling itself the Republican Forces of Burundi and carrying out a series of increasingly sophisticated attacks against the government.
According to the United Nations, more than 230,000 people have fled the country since April, and hundreds have been killed, many of them rounded up from opposition neighborhoods in the capital, Bujumbura, and executed by security forces without trial.
As the crisis deepened over the last nine months, the African Union made a number of efforts to quell the violence. It dispatched envoys to try to convince Nkurunziza not to run for a third term and directed the Eastern Africa Standby Force to begin contingency planning after the failed coup attempt. It also authorized the deployment of human rights observers, pledged to sanction leaders judged to be fueling the violence, and supported mediation efforts led by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.
But like the proposed peacekeeping mission, most of these efforts suffered from a lack of follow-through. Only 10 of the 100 human rights observers authorized by the African Union have deployed to the country, and a list of Burundian officials to be sanctioned has yet to emerge. Meanwhile, the Ugandan-led mediations limped along for months before being postponed indefinitely in January, when Burundian officials didn’t show up for scheduled talks in neighboring Tanzania.
“Where is the sanctions list? Why haven’t the remaining observers deployed?” said Bouka. “And now we have zero momentum when it comes to mediation. For whatever reason, the AU hasn’t been able to follow through in bringing the full range of tools at its disposal to bear in the current crisis.”
When the AU authorized MAPROBU in December, it was taking a dangerous gamble: Get the Burundian government to consent to the peacekeeping force and look strong and proactive, or have its bluff called and throw into question the credibility of the AU’s coercive apparatus. It was “a novel form of coercive diplomacy,” writes Paul D. Williams, an expert on peacekeeping at George Washington University.
Just how far the AU had climbed out on a limb became apparent within days of the troop authorization, when the Burundian government threatened to treat MAPROBU as an “invasion and occupation force.” Unable to rally the votes needed in a general assembly that gives an equal voice to leaders like Nkurunziza, who have poor human rights records or are facing hostile insurgencies, the AU’s authorization became an empty threat — a statement of its concern about the mounting violence in Burundi but also of its unwillingness to violate the sovereignty of a member state to do anything about it.
“The heads of state … acknowledged the gravity of the situation, but were reluctant to set a precedent of deploying a mission without consent,” said Yann Bedzigui, a researcher at South Africa’s Institute for Policy Studies who attended the AU summit as an observer. “It is necessary to remember that even the U.N. Security Council was ambivalent about this kind of deployment, [when] peacekeepers go where they are uninvited.”
The question now is whether the AU’s deference to Burundian sovereignty will embolden the government to crack down even harder on its opponents, incentivize the armed opposition to ramp up its campaign of attacks — or both.
“If no peacekeepers will be deployed, dissident forces might feel encouraged to go ahead [with attacks], and that can actually fuel the conflict,” said Malte Brosig, an associate professor of international relations at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa. “And what will be the interpretation of the government? Is it carte blanche? Will the government be encouraged now to use more repressive measures? It’s an open question.”
There is also the question of how the United Nations will react to the African Union’s failure to chart a clear path forward. Had the Burundian government signaled its acceptance of the proposed AU peacekeeping mission — or the Assembly voted to force its deployment — the Security Council would likely have endorsed the AU’s decision in its own resolution. But now it’s harder to predict what the United Nations will do. The Security Council has made two trips to Burundi in recent months to gather information and promote peaceful dialogue. It is expected to pass a resolution in the coming weeks based in part on its findings — and it seems safe to say that it won’t be taking its cues from the African Union.
“I think the U.N. was looking for the AU to take the lead on this, but now we’re still clueless. What should be in [the resolution] beyond the fact that violence is bad?” said Brosig.
The idea of an AU peacekeeping deployment is not officially dead: The Assembly has pledged to send a high-level delegation to Burundi to try to convince the government to approve the troop deployment. But given Nkurunziza’s intransigence to date, it seems unlikely that he will suddenly embrace a foreign military presence. As Burundian Foreign Minister Alain Nyamitwe mused after the conclusion of the AU summit, it’s unclear why AU envoys would even bother making the trip, “since everyone is [already] aware of the position of Burundi.”
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