Why Africa can’t fail Burundi

CRITICAL: Kenya's opposition leader, Raila Odinga, called on the international community to assist the people of Burundi against what he called its "murderous regime".

CRITICAL: Kenya's opposition leader, Raila Odinga, called on the international community to assist the people of Burundi against what he called its "murderous regime".

Published Feb 2, 2016


Shannon Ebrahim

Foreign Editor

The days of Africa relying on the international community to intervene to stop the bloodletting are supposed to be long over. The operationalisation of the African Standby Force has been discussed for over 13 years, and the African Crisis Response Initiative (ACIRC) was supposed to be an interim measure.

These forces were expressly for the purpose of intervening in cases of gross human rights abuses and genocide on the continent, so that Africa didn’t have to rely on the goodwill of the international community to intervene.

For all the peace and security architecture that the continent has spent well over a decade creating, the political will to use it has not been forthcoming. This week, Kenya’s opposition leader, Raila Odinga, called on the international community to assist the people of Burundi against what he called Burundi’s “murderous regime” in the face of AU inaction. “The international community needs to stand with the people of Burundi if Africa will not,” he said.

This was not supposed to happen in Africa of the 21st century. We know the reasons why the big powers never intervened effectively in Rwanda in 1994, and those reasons haven’t changed. The current French head of the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Herve Ladsous, has already warned that in a scenario of all-out genocide in Burundi, the UN would be ineffective and ill-prepared to stop it. A leaked memo he wrote to the UN Security Council last month shows there is no plan to prevent genocide in Burundi.

“UN peacekeeping is limited in its ability to address significant violence against civilians, even violence amounting to genocide, where it lacks a political framework and the consent of the host nation and/or the main parties to the conflict.”

This is hardly surprising as Burundi has no resources to offer the world, and is one of the poorest countries in Africa. It is convenient to leave its descent into chaos in the hands of the AU.

The AU’s refusal to act, despite the dire warnings of the UN secretary-general and a number of UN agencies, suggests there were other factors at play that had to do with regional alliances and financial resources. A senior leader of the East African Standby Force, which may ultimately be called on to deploy troops to Burundi, noted this week that as soon as AU members confronted the fact that 20 percent of the EU’s funding to the AU’s peace and security architecture had been cut, most states lost interest in a deployment to Burundi.

The fall-back position was to announce that urgent emphasis will be placed on accelerating the inter-Burundian dialogue in order to find a political solution. While a sustainable solution to the crisis in Burundi will ultimately require a political solution, it is naive to believe that the Burundian government has the intention of participating in an all-inclusive dialogue. Just as it has outright refused the deployment of international troops, it has also refused to sit down and dialogue with “terrorists”, referring to the country’s armed opposition.

Independent Media discussed with various government figures in Burundi the issue of the externally mediated dialogue, which was met with cynicism across the board. The external dialogue, under the facilitation of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni’s designated envoy, Defence Minister Crispus Kiyonga, commenced on December 2015. The second meeting, scheduled for January 6, was postponed due to the Burundian government’s unhappiness over not being adequately consulted by the facilitation team.

“The Burundian leadership feels the dialogue process is being forced on us by the East African Community, but we have little choice but to go along with it,” Joseph Bangurambona, the permanent secretary of Foreign Affairs, told Independent Media.

The speaker of the national assembly, Pascal Nyabenda, echoed these sentiments: “The Ugandan Defence Minister Kiyonga doesn’t know Burundi. The fact that the secretary-general of the EAC is Rwandan is an issue for us.” The inference being that the EAC is incapable of being even-handed.

Nyabenda told Independent Media that if the external dialogue process is to proceed, “the facilitation team should be strengthened with the inclusion of Tanzania and South Africa”, countries it considers its allies. The stronger message is that there is no need for an externally facilitated dialogue as there is “no problem in Burundi”.

Any insistence on the importance of dialogue is met with the response that Burundi already has an internal dialogue process of its own, which is perfectly adequate. Independent Media met last week with the president of the Internal Dialogue Commission, Bishop Justin Nzoyisaba, who argued that “there is no need for any externally mediated dialogue by the region”.

On closer examination, the internal dialogue process is fraught with shortcomings, and appears to outside observers to be largely a tool of the ruling CNDD-FDD party, in order to galvanise support for party positions. Nzoyisaba described the mass meetings of 600 to 1 000 people that have been organised across the country.

According to Nzoyisaba, the people are dissatisfied with the Arusha formula, which allocates 40 percent of government jobs and seats in the national assembly for Tutsis, and 50 percent of the positions in the security forces. It has allegedly long been the goal of the CNDD-FDD to see the Arusha formula done away with. While there may, in fact, be real public unhappiness with the Arusha formula, which apportions quotas for Tutsis far in excess of their percentage of the population (15 percent), there are allegations that the commission is using the dialogue process to mould public opinion behind the CNDD party agenda.

One international official in Bujumbura, who spoke to Independent Media on condition of anonymity, likened the mass meetings of the internal dialogue to CNDD party meetings. The official, who had attended a number of such meetings, claimed that any dissenting opinions voiced by the public were booed, and the speaker was humiliated by party officials who would encourage the crowd to bang their shoes on the ground in order to drown out any critical voices.

The political opposition in Burundi was also scathing about the internal dialogue process, and former rebel leader-turned-politician Agathon Rwasa told Independent Media: “What is the point of having any dialogue process at all when the government is preparing to annihilate sections of the population?” Rwasa is currently first deputy speaker of the national assembly.

Before any meaningful dialogue can take place, it is necessary and urgent to ensure that civilians in Burundi are protected. If the AU and the international community fail Burundians on this score, then the doctrine of the Responsibility to Protect will remain just that – a doctrine.

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