The Harrowing Journey to Peace in Burundi – The Limitations of Regional Bodies

By Olivier Bucyana – @Olivierbu1


Protests in Bujumbura, Burundi- Globovision – May 13, 2015


The year is 2015, April 26th to be precise, a cloudy day that remains ingrained in the minds of many Burundians. On that day, concerned citizens of all walks of life decide to exercise their constitutional right to protest against President Nkurunziza’s attempt to seek a third presidential term believed to be unconstitutional and in opposition to the 2000 Arusha Accords negotiated under the auspices of the late Nelson Mandela and Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. As protestors pelt the police with stones, set up barricades and light tires across the streets of Bujumbura, the police respond with tear gas and live ammunition to disperse the crowd. A few days later, the Constitutional Court validates President Nkurunziza’s candidacy even as the Vice-President of the said court denounces the President’s intentions and flees the country. On 15 May, after two days of intense fighting in Bujumbura, an attempted coup by the former Chief of Defense Staff, General Godefroid Niyombare, fails. A series of arrests of opponents follow suit and the second Vice-President of the country as well as the President of the National Assembly leave the country after publically denouncing the Head of State’s decision to stay in power. On July 24th, President Nkurunziza is re-elected for a third time.

Almost two years have passed since the first protests sprung in the streets of Bujumbura. Military outposts have reportedly been attacked, targeted assassinations have been conducted and torture as well as human rights violations have been reported by the United Nations. In spite of this, however, Burundi barely features into the mainstream media as these series of events continue to bring flashbacks of the country’s 12-year long civil war (1993-2005) whose casualties no one can assert with certainty. Over 300,000 Burundians have fled to neighboring countries, many of whom are leaving Burundi for the 2nd or 3rd time fleeing the cyclical violence the country has faced in the past three decades.

The United Nations has voiced concerns over a possible looming Genocide. International partners have cut aid on which Burundi is heavily dependent thereby adding paramount pressure on the Government’s ability to effectively provide social services to its people. The African Union (AU) vowed not to allow another genocide to take place on the African continent and the African Union’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) recommended sending troops to Burundi, which African leaders did not endorse. The mediation, which is spearheaded by President Yoweri Museveni of Uganda and facilitated by former President of Tanzania Benjamin Mkapa, is largely failing in the face of violence.

The AU’s inability to send troops to Burundi as recommended by the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) has revealed weaknesses in the organization’s ability to respond to crises on the continent. The reluctance of African leaders to endorse the PSC’s decision has shown the limits of that institution to enforce peace in given situations. The Burundi crisis is also testing Article 4(p) of the African Union’s Constitutive Act, which condemns and rejects “unconstitutional changes of government”, however fails to clearly define what exactly qualifies them as unconstitutional. The legality or illegality of the President’s 3rd term isn’t clear. Was the constitution manipulated or was a legal loophole used to seek the third term?

With respect to the principle of subsidiarity, the East African Community (EAC) has also been leading the mediation process, however, the divisions within the EAC block is equally hampering its ability to mediate the conflict and bring all key Burundian parties to the table. The talks have stalled and there doesn’t seem to be any tangible solutions by the EAC to address the political crisis that if unresolved could lead to more violence and unrest. The announcement by a former senior officer of the Burundian army, Lieutenant Colonel Edouard Nshimirimana, is proof that low-intensity warfare is slowly taking over the mediation process. The desire of many refugees to use military means to return back to their country is also proof that armed confrontation between the opposing parties remains a reality today.

Time and time again, regional blocks and international institutions have been faced with complex crises and the Burundian case is one of them. However, the principles of state sovereignty and non-interference often get in the way of resolving these crises. In other words, traditional sovereignty, which encompasses the rights of states to govern themselves, continues to play an important role in the decision-making process of the African Union especially when it comes to the prevention, management and resolution of crises and conflicts in Africa. This above-mentioned principle and its use is often inconsistent with the Responsibility to Protect pledge endorsed by UN member states, including African states, at the 2005 World Summit to prevent genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. As the newly elected Chairperson of the African Union Commission (AUC), Mr. Moussa Faki Mahamat’s aptitude to address many of the security challenges the continent faces, in particular the Burundi crisis, will be in his ability to be a unifying figure and find consensus among Heads of States. Without a common position in resolving the said crisis, both the AU and the EAC risk failing its mediation process and become merely observers as Burundi slides back into armed conflict and as the refugee crisis worsens with long term consequences in the region.

The recent discovery of a mass grave in central Burundi containing about 1,000 remains dating back to the 1972 crisis shows that Burundi remains, to this day, haunted by its past. In one of his poems, the world-renowned poet Rumi once wrote “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and right doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there”. Peace in Burundi ultimately rests in the hands of Burundians and their ability to reach out to one another and have frank and difficult conversations on the state of current affairs and the way forward for peace to prevail.

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