Burundi has been experiencing waves of protests, targeted killings, mass violence, and displacement since the lead up to controversial elections in July, 2015 in which President Pierre Nkurunziza was elected to a third term in office—something the constitution and peace accords that ended a more than decade-long civil war prohibited. In the aftermath of the elections, with some in Burundi feeling as though the President should step down and others supportive of Nkurunziza, the controversy surrounding the elections quickly turned a political conflict into a violent one.
The United Nations (UN) estimates that at least 400 people have died, many through extrajudicial killings, and approximately 220,000 people have fled to neighboring countries to escape the violence or threat of violence.
There has been a lot of discussion focused on whether the current situation is genocide, or approaching genocide. Given Burundi’s history of genocide and ethnic tensions between Hutu and Tutsi, this concern makes sense. Parallels have even been drawn to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda; especially given that the two share a similar ethnic makeup and a border. While the current situation does not appear to be genocidal in nature, or even on the precipice of genocide, that should not detract from the fact that mass violence is plaguing Burundi. If the situation is not resolved quickly, the country risks further decent into widespread and systematic mass atrocities, namely crimes against humanity. Furthermore, the longer the conflict rages on, the more likely some actors may seek to exploit ethnic divisions as a means of scapegoating and targeting. Right now, it is important to focus on the reality on the ground in order to devise appropriate responses to the conflict, and prevent future violence from breaking out.
In response to the ongoing conflict, the international community has been grappling with solutions to resolve the situation. The UN Security Council unanimously adopted Resolution 2248 which condemned the ongoing violence, called on the government to “respect, protect, and guarantee all human rights and fundamental freedoms for all”, and expressed—somewhat hollowly—its intention to consider additional measures against any Burundian actors, within or outside the government, who stand in the way of peace.
President Barack Obama issued an Executive Order authorizing the sanctioning of individuals who are contributing to instability in Burundi, threatening peace and security, and committing human rights abuses. The United States (US) Special Envoy for the Great Lakes Region and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Tom Perriello, has been in and out of the region and consistent in his messages of peace and the need for regionally led peace talks.
The process for the peace talks between government and opposition forces finally began on December 28th in Kampala, Uganda—although the official negotiations will not begin until early January, 2016. Led by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni—another East African president who has chosen not to relinquish power—the talks are meant to bring about a political solution to the ongoing violence. It remains to be seen if the two sides will be able to come to an agreement that will end the conflict and restore peace to the nation. It also is unclear whether the government and opposition are in full control of the people instigating violence, and whether top-level negotiations will be able to end the cycles of violence that are plaguing the streets of Bujumbura.
Earlier this month the African Union’s Peace and Security Council (AUPSC) announced the decision to send a 5,000-strong peacekeeping force to Burundi to protect civilians. The African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi (MAPROBU) troops would come from the East African Standby Force (EASF) and have a six month renewable mandate. MAPROBU’s mandate is to protect civilians, prevent further deterioration of the security situation, and contribute to the establishment of conditions necessary for holding dialogue.
While the AU has authorized the peacekeeping force, President Nkurunziza recently stated that foreign soldiers deployed to Burundi would be a treated as an attack on the country, and the soldiers would be fought against. With the Burundian government flatly refusing to accept foreign soldiers on its soil, the AU is now in a precarious position in which it may be forced to make the unprecedented decision to send peacekeepers to a country where the government does not consent to its presence.
Ty McCormick, the Africa editor at Foreign Policy, explains that in order to authorize the mission without Burundi’s consent, the AU would have to “invoke Article 4(h) of the African Union’s Constitutive Act, which allows the continental body to force a peacekeeping presence on recalcitrant members in order to prevent ‘genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.’”
The Burundian government’s unwillingness to accept the force imperils the mission’s success, and there is a chance MAPROBU would end up being an additional party in the conflict, potentially doing more harm than good. The peacekeeping mission, if deployed, must have a clear raison d’etre. Currently, the somewhat nebulous mandate threatens a complete failure of the mission at best, and at worst, risks potentially adding to the chaos. With a long history of unclear mandates plaguing peacekeeping missions, and with Nkurunziza’s unwillingness to accept the mission, it is crucial that the AU and EASF clearly set out MAPROBU’s purpose and equip it to accomplish its mission. It must be determined from the outset how far the AU mission is willing to go to protect civilians.
Interestingly, while the AU is willing to send a 5,000-strong peacekeeping mission made up of troops from other nations into Burundi, the Burundian military currently has more than 5,000 troops serving in a peacekeeping mission in Somalia known as AMISOM (the African Union Mission in Somalia). One could make the argument that instead of sending external forces into Burundi, recalling the Burundian military serving abroad may make more sense given they would have a vested interest in restoring peace in their country. On the other hand, there is no guarantee that the soldiers could play a neutral role in the current conflict. With that said, given the cross border issues between Rwanda and Burundi, including some allegations of Rwanda recruiting Burundian refugees into militias aimed at destabilizing the Burundi, it is difficult to imagine how an EASF mission could be completely impartial.
With so many moving pieces, the international community is ill-equipped presently to bring about a peaceful end to this conflict. The AU’s threat to authorize a peacekeeping force without the government’s authority, and before peace talks have even occurred, puts the Burundian government on the defensive and potentially limits the viability of the talks. However, the world cannot sit idly by while the country continues its descent into chaos.
- The various regional and international actors must collectively support a plan going forward so that there is one clear and strong message being presented to all sides of the conflict.
- International monitors should be immediately dispatched to Burundi to report on human rights abuses, arms flows, and involvement of other state and non-state actors in the conflict.
- The Burundian government should be encouraged not to inhibit peaceful demonstrations, free speech, press, and radio. Dialogue inside Burundi is crucial at this moment. Peace messaging and dialogue programs should be supported by national and international organizations and donors.
- The peace talks in Kampala should be given a chance to work; however, a fixed timeline for the institution of alternative measures, including the deployment of MAPROBU, in the absence of clear progress should be established.
- The mandate for MAPROBU must be clearly defined, including its rules of engagement and limits on use of force. This is especially true if the mission is deployed without the consent of the Burundian government. The possibility that MAPROBU could become a belligerent actor in the conflict and the potential harm it could cause must be fully considered in the AU’s decision to deploy without the government’s consent.