Burundi on brink: Obama turns to Zuma

Policemen monitor the situation after firing teargas canisters at protesters in Bujumbura, Burundi. File picture: Goran Tomasevic

Policemen monitor the situation after firing teargas canisters at protesters in Bujumbura, Burundi. File picture: Goran Tomasevic

Published Nov 15, 2015


Johannesburg - Burundi is on the brink – at the edge of a precipice. The UN Special Adviser on Prevention of Genocide, Adama Dieng, has expressed alarm to the UN Security Council at the inflammatory and threatening language being used in Burundi, saying “some of it is very similar to the language used before and during the genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda”.

Bodies have been piling up daily on the streets of the capital Bujumbura, and there are reports of assassinations, torture and killings by police and the Imbonerakure (youth wing of the ruling party), as well as grenade attacks by government opponents against the police.

The head of the UN’s Human Rights Office, Scott Campbell, warned this week that the UN was less equipped to deal with the violence in Burundi than it was during the Rwandan genocide.

UN officials are considering sending UN troops from the Democratic Republic of Congo, which includes SA soldiers, to Burundi to prevent a genocide. The horrors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide – when close to a million Tutsis and some moderate Hutus were massacred over 100 days – still haunts the international community. Burundi’s last civil war, which ended in 2006, left 300 000 dead.

On Thursday, the UN Security Council unanimously adopted a French-drafted resolution condemning the violence, and calling for an assessment mission to go to Burundi urgently to decide on options for a UN presence and report back within 15 days.

The AU’s Commissioner for Peace and Security, Smail Chergui, is sending officials to the Ugandan capital to start a political dialogue for Burundians.

The AU has also called for more human rights observers to be sent to Burundi urgently.

Human Rights Watch, the International Crisis Group, and Amnesty International collectively warned this week that Burundi risks sliding back into conflict. In a joint statement on Thursday they said, “The UNSC (United Nations Security Council) has been put on notice that inaction could lead to uncontrolled escalation. It is now for the council to rise to the challenge with co-ordinated and timely action.”

South Africa spearheaded an initiative at the AU Summit in 2013 to create an African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC) in order to intervene in the type of crisis Burundi is facing. The rationale of such a force was to prevent or stop emerging genocides or crimes against humanity.

South Africa launched the idea in reaction to the AU’s perceived failure to intervene effectively in conflicts in Mali and the Central African Republic. The ACIRC was supposed to be an interim solution until the African Standby Force becomes operational next year. It is self-funded and based on the voluntary participation of member states.

Statements by the chief of the South African National Defence Force, Vusi Masondo, said South Africa’s military contribution to ACIRC would consist of 1 800 military personnel and was supposed to be at full operational capacity by the end of this month.

The ACIRC force can be sent at the behest of a lead country with AU approval. The decision to activate the measure is largely dependent on the political will of countries to act.

A senior SANDF official said South Africa had the military capacity to intervene in Burundi if the president gave the instruction. The question being asked was: “Why has South Africa remained so silent on Burundi?”

When US President Barack Obama phoned President Jacob Zuma on Thursday to express his grave concern about the situation in Burundi and to encourage African states to do more, Zuma expressed his support for the mediation efforts of Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni.

Museveni has had a mandate to start an inter-Burundian political dialogue process for months, but has failed at any attempt to bring about an inclusive dialogue.

Zuma’s former national security adviser, Welile Nhlapo, who has spent years brokering peace in Burundi on behalf of the South African government said: “Uganda cannot be neutral as a mediator in Burundi as it has already taken a position, and is seen as Rwandan President Paul Kagame’s ally. There is no political will on the part of the stakeholders in Burundi to negotiate anyway.”

Nhlapo believed that sending the East African Force into Burundi, if the situation deteriorated further, would be a mistake given that the regional countries had each taken a position on the conflict in Burundi.

Given the fact that Rwanda and Uganda had taken a position against Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, while Tanzania and Kenya support him, meant that troops from those countries may reflect the positions of their governments.

Since Nhlapo left his position as Zuma’s adviser, there has been very little, if any, systematic engagement from South Africa in Burundi. The fact that Zuma spent months as deputy president effectively negotiating peace in Burundi and is familiar with the stakeholders in the conflict meant, “he would be the ideal person to mediate between the parties at this critical time, if only he could be convinced to do so”, Burundi expert Devon Curtis said.

Independent Media

Related Topics: