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Jeggan Grey-Johnson | February 19 2016 | BUSINESS DAY
ZIMBABWE’S President Robert Mugabe handed the African Union (AU) chairmanship to Idriss Déby of Chad in Addis Ababa last month. The ceremony involved the usual pomp and pageantry, with platitudes and polemic about the unfair treatment Africa receives from the West: the lack of permanent positions for Africans, inadequate representation, muzzled voices and votes at the United Nations (UN) Security Council; internal meddling in the political affairs of AU member states through third parties such as nongovernment organisations, who are “nothing but spies”; and so on …
Words uttered by a grumpy old man to an African organisation that is mostly funded by non-African states. Yet, as the applause rang out in the AU Commission’s conference hall, gifted to it by the Chinese, citizens of one particular member state of the AU whose representatives were giving affirmation to Mugabe’s rhetoric on liberation, independence and brotherliness were experiencing a very different reality on the ground — one of total abandonment and neglect as their government and its military continue to unleash untold carnage and suffering on them.
For the people of Burundi the AU’s principles and mission of a united continent at peace with itself and the world ring ever more hollow, because since December last year when the AU for the first time invoked article 4h of the Constitutive Act, which allows it to send peacekeeping troops into a member country with or without its government’s permission, nothing has happened. In fact, the AU Peace and Security Council contradicted itself by shelving the proposal to deploy 5,000 peacekeeping troops to contain the Burundi crisis.
The reason? President Pierre Nkurunziza, the person who caused the chaos in the first place, labelled the AU peacekeeping intervention an invasion, and the AU capitulated. Nkurunziza has been getting his way with the AU at every turn for the past 18 months. In March 2014 he started picking small and large battles aimed at perpetuating his rule and obtaining absolute power. He outplayed parliament’s bid to block his first attempts to change the constitution, which threatened the balance of power between the country’s main ethnic groups. He defied the Catholic Church and its millions of followers, civil society, some members of his own party, regional, continental and international communities and muscled his way to victory in rigged polls.
True to form, when he started readying himself for combat by arming his young supporters and the UN called him out in April 2014, he expelled the senior UN official. That would not be the last expulsion or rebuffing of UN and AU diplomats and envoys — several followed with few or no repercussions. Nkurunziza’s third-term bid, which he forced through a highly compromised and intimidated constitutional court, has caused the deaths of 400 civilians and resulted in almost 250,000 people fleeing to neighbouring countries for fear of Nkurunziza’s death squads.
Known as the Imbonerakure (the Kirundi word for “those who see far”), these squads have executed opposition party members and sympathisers, human rights defenders and journalists, their wives and children. Yet the AU Commission seems helpless to intervene, even after its chairperson, Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, sent out countless statements and warnings about the country spiralling into uncontrollable civil war. SA, under Nelson Mandela, was one of the facilitators of the Arusha peace and reconciliation agreement that was signed in August 2000.
The AU threat to intervene in Burundi was never taken seriously in a country and region that knows only too well the scourge of extermination by ethnic genocide. The world has turned its back on the region repeatedly in the past — in 1972, 1988, and 1993-94 — and just recently hinted that it may do the same again. A UN memo that was leaked last year read: “A truly worst-case scenario will result in a scale of violence beyond the UN’s capacity to protect against without significant additional capabilities.”
The sooner the AU takes responsibility the better for Burundi, the volatile Great Lakes region and Africa as a whole.
AU intervention has to happen, and fast. Dialogue is not the answer at this late stage, even if it must be part of the mix in the future. But does the AU have the resources to fund an intervention force? How much would it cost? Who will pay for it?
The AU is largely funded by non-AU member states, and 20% of the European Union’s funding of the AU’s peace and security architecture has been cut. Added to the cost problem is a diplomatic one — Rwanda is accused of training rebels exiting Burundi to re-enter the country and dislodge the country’s ruling CNDD-FDD party, whose goal is believed to be to scrap the Arusha formula, which allocates quotas for Tutsis far in excess of their percentage of the population. Kigali is also not on the best of terms with Pretoria, although relations were recently described as “cordial”.
Diplomats who were expelled by both sides in a high-level diplomatic tit-for-tat remain in their respective countries. This followed accusations that Rwanda was behind assassinations and assassination attempts targeting Kagame’s critics residing in SA. But given the seriousness of the situation it is important to identify who has the leverage to address the crisis. Rwanda has historical and emotional ties to Burundi, as well as men on the ground and military muscle, and it is a regional diplomatic power. SA has moral authority as a major power broker given the role it played in the Arusha accords, at the crux of the matter.
Internal divisions at state level are another major impediment to rescuing Burundi from Nkurunziza’s clutches. The AU’s peace and security council, which has representatives from 10 countries, most only elected last month, includes Burundi as part of this elite club, which does not help matters. The East African Community, from where the AU Commission will be likely to take its cue, is considered to be biased by the regime in Bujumbura, which reckons Uganda’s role as chief mediator is inadequate given President Yoweri Museveni’s preoccupation with winning yet another term. The fact that the secretary-general of the regional body happens to be a Rwandan is also highly problematic, the insinuation being that the East African Community is incapable of being impartial.
Mugabe recounted the good old days of the Organisation of African Unity’s (OAU’s) collective resolve to free southern states of racism and apartheid in the mid-1970s, saying in his handover speech: “The spirit of unity and dedication and sacrifice must remain with us…. We must die a little (for each other’s causes).” The fact that he needed to resort to the days of the OAU for inspiration is telling, but apt.
The AU and its citizens will also have to die a little for Burundi.
• Grey-Johnson is Africa analyst at the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa