Chance for the AU to prove its mettle
Failure by African leaders to intervene in troubled Burundi will be a body blow to ‘African solutions for Africa’s problems’, writes
BURUNDI President Pierre Nkurunziza has sucked his country back into violence, risking ethnic civil war and economic collapse by selfishly deciding in April 2015 to seek a third term in office.
The turmoil in the East African country also risks political, economic and social destabilisation of the region.
Nkurunziza extended his term in violation of the country’s constitution, flouting the 2000 Arusha Agreement which ended a decade-long civil war.
The decision sparked mass protests, armed uprisings and an attempted coup.
In the run-up to the July 2015 elections, Nkurunziza suppressed the opposition, curtailed the media and used youth militias to intimidate those thinking of voting against him. Opposition parties boycotted the poll. The AU refused to send observers, saying the conditions for free and fair elections were non-existent.
More than 500 people have been killed and about 300 000 fled to neighbouring countries such Tanzania, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) and Uganda since the outbreak of the crisis in April 2015.
The UN found that 348 people were extra-judicially executed during July 2015 and June last year by government security forces or government-endorsed groups. It suggests human rights violations are so grave and amount to crimes against humanity.
Since the beginning of his third term, six rebel groups have launched and taken up arms against the government.
In October last year, Burundi’s parliament, packed with supporters of Nkurunziza, voted to leave the International Criminal Court (ICC). The government has closed down independent media and civil society organisations, suppressed journalists, activists and critics.
Human Rights Watch has reported that Imbonerakure, the ruling party’s youth league, with Imbonerakure meaning “those who see far” in Kirudi, the main language of Burundi, is responsible for terrifying atrocities, including killings, torture and severe beatings.
Landlocked Burundi’s economy shrank 7.4% in 2015. It became the world’s poorest nation – from the third-poorest, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Last year the EU, the country largest donor, cut development aid. International donors fund 50% of Burundi’s budget.
Revenue collection has been down, tourism has fallen and industry activity has contracted. A shortage of foreign currency has crippled business.
The global prices of coffee, the country’s largest export, have been falling – making things even harder for ordinary Burundians. Most of the economy is now largely subsistence-based.
The irony is that no leader in Africa has performed better in their extended terms. In fact, they have done worse: became more brazen, more corrupt and more ineffective.
Successful negotiations to end the 12-year Burundi civil war were one of the few success stories under the rubric of “African Solutions for Africa’s Problems”, championed by former president Thabo Mbeki and his peers.
The ending of the civil war in Burundi was also punted by Mbeki and peers as the beginning of an “African Renaissance”, and used as a business case for the New Partnership for Africa’s Development (Nepad), the then home-grown blueprint to develop the continent.
The AU in December 2015 authorised a 5 000-strong protection force to keep the peace in Burundi. Although the AU gave Nkurunziza a 96-hour ultimatum to accept the force, he opposed its deployment.
African leaders in the AU were and are still divided over whether to put aside Nkurunziza’s opposition in pushing ahead with deploying the force – which ultimately meant the AU backed down.
Some leaders clearly fear if they support the intervention force against Nkurunziza, when they themselves behave undemocratically, a similar force will also be deployed against them. The real danger is that Burundi will plunge into ethnic rivalry again. Belgium, the former colonial power, deliberately created artificial divisions between the Hutu and Tutsi – who share the same language and history – as part of its colonial policy to divide and rule the oppressed. The country consists of 85% Hutu and 15% Tutsi.
Unscrupulous post-independence leaders mobilised support along ethnic lines, blaming problems on other ethnic groups, and when in power, only enriched their ethnic group, while marginalising others.
Nevertheless, amid the political crisis the Hutu and Tutsi largely continue to live in harmony. Many Hutus opposed Nkurunziza’s power-grab; and most of the rebels opposing the president are Hutus. The coup attempt against Nkurunziza in May 2015 was led by Major-General Godefroid Niyombare, a Hutu, and former ally of Nkurunziza.
Nkurunziza is a member of the Hutu community. The government is dominated by members of the Hutu community. Some government critics have charged that officers of Tutsi origin are being moved from key offices in the army. If perceptions increase that the Tutsi are specifically singled out for attack, this might unleash revenge attacks based on ethnicity.
The Arusha peace agreement that ended the 12-year Burundi civil war recommended that the army be split 50-50 between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis. The army was previously dominated by the minority Tutsi. Nevertheless, the perception has been that the former Hutu rebels now in the army are more loyal to Nkurunziza and his ruling party, and the Tutsi that dominated the old army are aligned with the opposition.
The good thing is, opposition to Nkurunziza is not ethnically based, but runs across all communities. The danger is that Nkurunziza could mobilise along ethnic lines to retain his power. The government has claimed it attacks “all enemies”, no matter their ethnicity.
In Burundi, as in many African countries, ethnic genocide is often caused by a toxic cocktail of deep inequality across ethnic, religious, regional or power lines, with populist leaders from one group, blaming another for the former’s hardships.
The government must rein-in and prosecute members of its youth league, the Imbonerakure, who are guilty of atrocities. Individual targeted sanctions against those responsible for human rights abuses should be implemented by the UN.
The ICC should launch a full investigation as soon as possible into the post-2015 elections atrocities. The AU should more strongly intervene to hold Nkurunziza accountable. If it does not, its credibility is at stake. Burundi, a success story of ethnic reconciliation following civil war, must not be allowed to plunge back into ethnic civil war. A failure by the AU to intervene in Burundi will be a body blow to “African solutions for Africa’s problems” and will also signal the symbolic end of the African Renaissance and the Nepad continental project.
Credibility at stake if AU doesn’t intervene
William Gumede is chairman of the Democracy Works Foundation. His latest book is