The Crisis in Burundi: A Call to Regional Actors

The Crisis in Burundi: A Call to Regional Actors

Introduction

After nearly a decade of stable peace in Burundi, observers in the United Nations (UN), the African Union (AU), and the East African Community (EAC) are increasingly concerned that the current violence might relapse into full-scale civil war, thus reversing the success of the 2005 Arusha Agreement. In spite of civilian protests against president Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial third term, Burundi held its presidential elections in August 2015. Though the state has not relapsed into civil war,1 the country has continued to face serious political and humanitarian challenges. In the ensuing violence, at least 400 Burundians have been killed at the hands of the regime and approximately 220,000 have been displaced or sought refuge in neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Tanzania.2

In December 2015, the AU’s Peace and Security Council called for 5,000 peacekeepers to be deployed to Burundi under the African Prevention and Protection Mission (MAPROBU).3 Determined to prevent genocide from taking place again on the continent, this proposal suggests the AU’s fear of another “Rwanda”.4 However, the Burundian government fiercely opposed this plan on the grounds of national sovereignty, labeling the opposition as terrorists and threatening to turn peacekeepers away.5 At the time of writing, no AU peacekeepers have entered Burundi. As pressure builds surrounding the humanitarian crisis, so too does the intransigent stance of the Burundian government, which has refused to join subsequent peace talks in the region.

What does all this portend for Burundi’s future? Given Burundi’s refusal to allow the AU’s peacekeeping force and the UN’s admitted lack of preparedness, what role can the East African Community play in diffusing the situation and ensuring long-term peace that benefits not only Burundi but also the entire region?

Firstly, events and developments in Burundi need to be understood on their own terms and through proper analysis and contextualization. Without understanding the specific historical, political, economic, and cultural context of the present situation, outside actors will only complicate matters relating to peacebuilding efforts in the region. Assuming a possible turn to genocide and indirectly likening Burundi’s current crisis to Rwanda’s past, without proper analysis and empirical evidence, has the potential to overlook crucial aspects of the conflict, derail any peacekeeping mission, and instigate more tension among Burundi’s politicians.

Secondly, EAC member states must take concerted and collective action to stop the bloodshed, address the refugee crisis, and support the AU’s efforts towards restoring peace in Burundi. Despite the AU’s willingness to act, peacekeeping efforts have partly been stalled due to its reliance on the UN.6 Furthermore, the UN has stated that it is less equipped to deal with the violence in Burundi today than it was for the Rwandan genocide in the early 1990s.7 The burden, then, falls on the EAC—in particular neighboring countries of Uganda and Rwanda—to support the AU’s peacekeeping mission. By working together, actors in the Great Lakes Region can address the crisis directly by leveraging economic sanctions, enforcing an arms embargo, and devising clear policy strategies that will bring a cessation to hostilities and provide aid and support those who have fled the country. Given the region’s history of conflict, it is in the self-interest of the EAC states to diffuse the situation by putting aside political differences and working together to convince Nkurunziza to allow greater space for inclusive dialogue.

Look Forward, Not Backward

In December 2015, eighty-seven individuals were reported killed in one day.8 Following this overtly violent act, the AU stated that Africa “will not allow another genocide to take place on its soil.”9 Given Rwanda’s recent memory of genocide and Burundi’s own civil war in 1990s, this sentiment appears logical to any outside observer. Moreover, discussing the prospects of genocide and civil war has undoubtedly helped to turn international and media attention to the conflict. However, without a robust interrogation of empirical evidence and proper contextualization, this tendency by AU and UN specialists to liken Burundi to Rwanda—whether directly or indirectly—and suggest that the violence has ethnic overtones has the potential to contribute to more regional tension than appeasement among Burundi’s elite. For example, following the AU’s comment one Burundian government official suggested that a peacekeeping force would be better deployed to Rwanda, perhaps referring to the lack of action taken against Paul Kagame’s own bid to prolong his stay in power.10

Thus, in order to deflate political tensions and address the political dilemma at the heart of the current crisis, policymakers and diplomats must examine Burundi according to its own political and contemporary realities. Doing so will enable regional and international actors to design and implement concrete plans and actions, backed by analysis, as opposed to knee jerk responses based on wrong assumptions. Only through empirical research grounded in the context of Burundi, regional cooperation, and unified political pressure can the country’s violence be quelled and the roadmap for a long-term peace achieved.

A Call to Regional Actors

Mediation talks were recently held Uganda involving “Burundian government and opposition delegations, representatives from the AU and the UN, as well as Western diplomats.”11 Though plans were made for another series of talks in Tanzania in January 2016, the Burundian government announced it would not join discussions where the opposition was present.12 Given this inflexibility, it is critical for regional actors to apply adequate political pressure and demand a cessation of hostilities. Some positive steps have already been taken; for example, last month Tanzania became the first member to openly endorse the deployment of African Union peacekeeping troops.13 Others, however—particularly Uganda and Rwanda—must move beyond discussions of sovereignty and bring Nkurunziza and other Burundian officials to the negotiation table before the situation spirals out of control.

The EAC must therefore work together to devise clear policy strategies that will see an immediate end to the violence and prevent another failed state from emerging—the consequences of which would most certainly reverberate throughout the Great Lakes Region. This should include the imposition of immediate economic sanctions and a regional and international arms embargo on Burundi. Humanitarian measures must also be put in place to ensure the safety of all refugees and provide rapid aid relief, as history shows that often times refugees in this region form opposition groups and rebel movements, thus continuing conflict. Looking forward, the EAC must push for peace negotiations that revisit Burundi’s 2005 peace deal, constitutional term limits, and convince Burundi to accept AU peacekeepers. Should the EAC fail to form a unified front in applying pressure on Nkurunziza to accept inclusive dialogue and peace, the UN will likely not approve the AU’s peacekeeping measures.

  1. Alan J. Kuperman, “Burundi's Balancing Act: Making Peace After Genocide,” Foreign Affairs, August 28, 2015, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/burundi/2015-08-28/burundis-balancing-act, accessed December 20, 2015.
  2. BBC, “Burundi Crisis: Pierre Nkurunziza Threatens to Fight AU Peacekeepers,” December 30, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-35198897, accessed December 31, 2015.
  3. Al Jazeera, “Burundi: We Will Not Allow Foreign Troops to Enter,” December 21, 2015, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/12/burundi-rejects-african-peacekeeping-force-soil-151219091828582.html, accessed December 21, 2015.
  4. BBC, “Burundi Crisis: African Union ‘Won't Allow Genocide,’ ” December 17, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-35120221, accessed December 17, 2015.
  5. Kayla Ruble, “Burundi’s President Vows to Fight Back if African Union Troops Enter His Country,” Vice News, December 30, 2015, https://news.vice.com/article/burundis-president-vows-to-fight-back-if-african-union-troops-enter-his-country?utm_source=vicenewstwitter, accessed December 31, 2015.
  6. BBC, “Burundi Crisis: African Union Plans to Deploy Peacekeepers,” December 18, 2015, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-35130219, accessed December 18, 2015.
  7. Colin Freeman, “ ‘We Are Powerless to Stop Rwandan-Style Genocide in Burundi,’ Admits UN,” The Telegraph, November 10, 2015, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/africaandindianocean/burundi/11987055/We-are-powerless-to-stop-Rwandan-style-genocide-in-Burundi-admits-UN.html, accessed December 17, 2015.
  8. Reuters, “Eighty Seven People Killed During Day of Clashes in Burundi Capital – Army,” December 12, 2015, http://af.reuters.com/article/rwandaNews/idAFL8N1410FZ20151212, accessed December 14, 2015; See also Amnesty International, “ ‘My Children Are Scared:’ Burundi’s Deepening Human Rights Crisis,” Briefing, December 22, 2015, https://amnesty.app.box.com/s/go74byq61s6dhaaew99rueqb824r6dmn, accessed December 28, 2015.
  9. BBC, “Burundi Crisis: African Union ‘Won't Allow Genocide.’ ”
  10. BBC, “Burundi Crisis: African Union Plans to Deploy Peacekeepers.”
  11. Kayla Ruble, “Burundi’s President Vows to Fight Back if African Union Troops Enter His Country.”
  12. Al Jazeera, “Burundi Government Says It Will Not Join Peace Talks,” January 5, 2016, http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2016/01/burundi-government-join-peace-talks-160105114713021.html?platform=hootsuite, accessed January 5, 2016.
  13. Aggrey Mutambo, “Tanzania Supports Plan to Send 5,000 Troops to Troubled Burundi,” Daily Nation, January 10, 2015, http://www.nation.co.ke/news/africa/Tanzania-supports-plan-to-send-troops-to-Burundi/-/1066/3027690/-/2umbrq/-/index.html?platform=hootsuite, accessed January 11, 2016.
About the Author

Dagan Rossini is a fellow at Yale University with the Yale Young African Scholars program. Previously, Dagan worked for the African Peacebuilding Network of the Social Science Research Council, where he also served as the program’s photographer and editor of Kujenga Amani. He has additional experience with Putney Student Travel, Interpeace, the International Legal Foundation, and Brown University. Dagan holds a bachelor’s degree from Colgate University, where he double majored in political science and peace and conflict studies, with a focus on international social justice. His research interests include higher education, leadership, peacebuilding, urbanization, and youth.

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