Opinion: Time For South Africa To Lead In Burundi Crisis Negotiations Again

Opinion: Time For South Africa To Lead In Burundi Crisis Negotiations Again

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By Stephanie Wolters |Head, Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis Division | Institute For Security Studies (ISS)

(This article was republished with permission from ISS)

Next week, the annual African Union (AU) Summit takes place at the AU headquarters in Addis Ababa. Not generally an event which generates ground-breaking policy, this summit could (and should) be historic: it will be the first time that heads of state will vote on the deployment of an AU-led peacekeeping force to a country that has not agreed to its deployment. That country is Burundi, and the decision to deploy was made by the 15-member Peace and Security Council (PSC) on 17 December last year.

Burundi has been sliding towards ever greater instability since President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to push forward with a third mandate last year.

Nkurunziza’s interpretation of the constitution – he argued that he is entitled to a third term because his first one was a special, post-transition mandate – was contested by civil society and the political opposition, and sparked widespread protests ahead of the June/July election.

Despite winning the controversial election, the government has pursued a hard-line strategy towards human rights activists, the political opposition and the independent media – essentially eliminating any dissenting voices in the country. Since July, the crisis has only grown more acute. Few now believe that things will simply settle down again, and hundreds of opposition politicians, civil society activists and journalists are currently in exile in Rwanda, Kenya or Belgium. This is in addition to the 240 000 Burundians who have fled the country and now live as refugees in neighbouring countries.

There have been hundreds of killings and murders by the security services, which the government denies. Insecurity is widespread within the capital Bujumbura and increasingly in the rural areas. Civilians are subjected to the whims of the security forces, which randomly target especially young men and accuse them of supporting the armed opposition, which is now also contributing to the insecurity through acts of violence. In areas where the protest movement has been strongest, residents have had to steel themselves for the increasingly regular sight of bullet-riddled corpses lying discarded on the streets.

Last week the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al-Hussein, also called attention to incidents of sexual violence, disappearances and allegations about the existence of mass graves. Al-Hussein further warned that the violence might take on an ethnic dimension, saying: ‘This is an indication that a complete breakdown in law and order is just around the corner and, with armed opposition groups also becoming more active, and the potentially lethal ethnic dimension starting to rear its head, this will inevitably end in disaster if the current rapidly deteriorating trajectory continues.’

The PSC decision is bold, and it is in response to these growing horrors. AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, together with PSC Commissioner Smaïl Chergui, have in the last few months led the AU’s increasingly uncompromising response towards the Burundian crisis – likely recognising that time is running out if greater violence is to be averted.

The Burundian government appears taken aback by this strong stance. Foreign Minister Alain Nyamitwe told the Institute for Security Studies in November that the AU’s reaction was disproportionate.

But Article 4(H) of the AU Constitutive Act – on which the PSC is basing its decision, and the 2007 African Charter on Elections and Governance, are critical tools for addressing instability and conflict on the continent. Key aspects of the charter address precisely the type of situation that Burundi now finds itself in: a slide into generalised insecurity and instability so great that it threatens the country and the region. Article 4 and the charter are cornerstones of the normative shift that accompanied the transition from the old Organization of African Union to today’s AU; from the principle of non-interference, to one of non-indifference.