Let's Think

Is AU failing a test in Burundi?

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Has the African Union (AU) forfeited the right to be regarded as the guardian of peace, by failing to intervene in the deepening crisis in Burundi?

When the just concluded 36th AU summit decided not to deploy 5 000 AU peacekeepers to intervene in Burundi’s escalating political crisis, the ray of hope that the organisation would at last stand up and do what is right and needed, dissipated like mist before the sun.

In an article last week we argued with cautious optimism that the summit could be a watershed, should the AU, for the first time in its history, decide to invoke Article 4 of its Constitutive Act.

This article allows intervention against the will of a member state to avert war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.

Our optimism was based on a bold decision in December 2015 by the AU’s 15-member Peace and Security Council (PSC) to recommend deployment of 5 000 AU peacekeepers to Burundi.
In the build-up to the summit there were strong suggestions that the AU was prepared “to prove that it has teeth and [is] a real force for good”.

It was, however, wrong and naïve to think, even hope, that the AU might, after all, prove its many critics wrong by showing integrity and grit.

It AU proved, yet again, to be little more than a very expensive talk shop of little influence and substance.
What sank the idea of the peacekeeping force was the lack of enough support among Africa’s heads of state to deploy it against the will of Burundi’s government. Fears prevailed that such a decision would set a precedent for the organisation known for its preference for non-intervention.

This is something Africa’s dictators and tyrants want to prevent at all costs.

They are fearful the AU might become brave enough to call them to justice as they continue to show scant regard for the basic human rights of ordinary citizens whose lives and suffering count for little in the eyes of the governing elites.

Ironically, the official theme of the summit was human rights, yet it turned a blind eye to developments in Burundi. In fact, failure to act against transgressions in Burundi is tantamount to endorsement of what is happening there.

Acknowledgement

A Kenyan analyst remarked that: “There is a sense that they (AU members) are protecting their own skins and do not care about the people of Africa at all.”

One senior AU diplomat publically said it was never the intention of the AU to do what is necessary and right in Burundi.

According to him: “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. This is unimaginable.”
After this disgraceful capitulation, Burundi’s president Nkurunziza will feel emboldened.

Stephanie Wolters, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies, remarked: “If the AU summit doesn’t sanction Burundi in some way, the Burundians will walk away feeling they were successful and that the fraternity of heads of state is on their side.”

The AU unreservedly conceded that the fate of Burundi’s citizens and the real possibility of genocide are of little concern. Even the prospect of a regional conflict, against the backdrop of mounting evidence that neighbouring Rwanda is involved in the training and arming of Burundi rebels, failed to induce a meaningful response.

The best the AU could offer is to send a yet to be appointed high-level panel at an unspecified date to Bujumbura to promote “inclusive dialogue”. And to, yet again, encourage Nkurunziza to change his mind.

There seems to be a total lack of urgency and determination. “If Burundi comes back and says they feel they can do the peacekeeping, and do everything else, that is their sovereignty,” is the view of Erastus Mwancha, deputy chair of the AU Commission.

PSC chief, Smail Chergui, appeared equally spineless in explaining that the peacekeeping force could be sent in future “if Burundi accepts it” – what a farce!
Niguranziza is adamant – peacekeeping troops are not welcome and will be considered “an invasion force”.
With the AU surrendering to his demands, there is no reason for Niguranziza to entertain any of the AU’s suggestions, particularly not a peacekeeping deployment.

Burundi’s foreign minister actually claimed the AU summit ended with a clear understanding that the “high level delegation” would not focus on deploying troops.

Lessons of history

History tells us how appeasement attempts by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain in 1939 to convince Adolf Hitler to stop his war talk, came to naught. What are the odds that the “high level panel” will also return from Burumbuja, claiming triumphantly “peace in our time”, only to be proven wrong later.
Simon Allison wrote in Daily Maverick: “The situation (in Burundi) is getting worse. Various opposition groups have formed militias, and [are] engaged in low-intensity conflict with government troops. This could escalate into a civil war or even a regional war if rumours of Rwanda’s involvement are true. Some of the violence is along ethnic lines, with Hutus pitted against Tutsis, raising fears – perhaps exaggerated – of a repeat of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.”

I find it somewhat odd that Allison, in my opinion a level-headed and well-informed journalist, like many other analysts and commentators, can regard the view of a growing ethnic character to the crisis in Burundi and the danger of a repeat of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, as “perhaps exaggerated”.
Genocide has no quota system or cruelty margin.

Why so little progress?

How it possible is that world has progressed so little since 1994? In Rwanda people then were slaughtered and butchered in their thousands by the hour in a ninety-day orgy of bloodletting.
Meantime, in the air-conditioned corridors and assembly halls of the UN, diplomats were debating the definition of what constitutes genocide.

Is the world still in that same mode despite all the promises and undertakings – including one from former US president Bill Clinton during whose presidency the Rwandan genocide occurred and who apologised years later, saying that that it would never be repeated?

I see little progress against the backdrop of the surreal spectacle during the AU summit where outgoing AU chairman, Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe, received a standing ovation after he regurgitated his customary vitriol against the West and the UN.

No word, no suggestion, as how to resolve the tragedy in Burundi and worse, no hint of any sympathy with the suffering of the people of Burundi!

Could one dare to hope that the incoming chairman, Chad’s Iris Debby, himself in power for over twenty years, will keep to his word and commit himself to his own observation that, “Our organisation acts as it has for the past 20 or 30 years: we meet often, we talk too much, we always write a lot, but we don't do enough, and sometimes nothing all”. Significantly, he added: “Through diplomacy or by force ... we must put an end to these tragedies of our time.”

But it is difficult to remain optimistic.

by Garth Cilliers

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