AU Chairperson President Robert Mugabe, Senegal President Macky Sall cutting the ribbon while President Jacob Zuma, Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and NEPAD's chief executive officer, Dr Ibrahim Assane Mayaki look on at the launch of the NEPAD exhibition before the 33rd Summit of the NEPAD Heads of State and Government Orientation Committee (HSGOC) held on the margins of the African Union's 25th Summit. Sandton International Convention Centre, Johannesburg, South Africa. 13/06/2015, Elmond Jiyane, GCIS

Burundi is at imminent risk of descending into civil war. That is the warning of Salim Ahmed Salim, the former secretary-general of the Organisation of African Unity, the predecessor to the AU, which is meeting in Sandton.

“Immediate measures need to be implemented to de-escalate the situation in Burundi, or the country could descend into civil war again,” wrote Salim in an op-ed piece this week, timed to coincide with the AU Summit hosted by South Africa.

Salim further warned: “Burundi and Rwanda’s history have shown the tragic consequences of failing to act when leaders incite or fail to contain violence. A return to conflict in Burundi would nullify the Arusha Agreement and have destabilising consequences for the entire region.”

These concerns are echoed by Welile Nhlapo, Burundi expert and former national security adviser to President Jacob Zuma, who is attending the AU Summit as an observer.

“If elections are carried out under current conditions in Burundi, no one will recognise the results and it will give good reason to the spoilers to launch into serious armed conflict. We are concerned about the risk of Burundi descending into civil war again,” Nhlapo has said on the sidelines of the summit.

Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza endorsed a new election timetable this week hours after the UN warned that an increase in violence committed by pro-government militias could push the country into a civil war.

Presidential elections are now scheduled for July 15, senatorial elections for July 24 and parliamentary and local government elections for June 29. The opposition has categorically rejected these dates and will boycott the elections, saying that any elections under these conditions cannot be free and fair.

The AU Peace and Security Council, which met last night, is mandated to discuss the conflict in Burundi and come up with a road map for the way forward.

Experts fear the AU will fail to produce decisive action.

Popular Burundian singer Khadja Nin, who is at the summit, has added her voice to the criticism of Nkurunziza, saying: “We are calling for greater regional diplomatic pressure on Nkurunziza to step aside before protests escalate. The EU mustn’t act before the AU, as then the AU would just be an empty box.”

According to Devon Curtis, a Burundi expert and senior lecturer on Africa at Cambridge University, “the conflict in Burundi is fundamentally political, with Hutu and Tutsi on both sides of the divide”.

“There is a risk, however, that the ethnic dimension could become more prominent, especially if Rwanda were to become involved.”

Curtis has warned Western government officials that there is a danger that Rwanda may use the instability as a pretext for intervention in Burundi. Large numbers of refugees have crossed the border into Rwanda and there are allegations that youth militia groups in Burundi, the Imbonerakure, have links to the Burundian ruling party as well as to the FDLR.

The FDLR are the Hutu former genocidaires who fled Rwanda after the 1994 genocide and are now based in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Any Rwandan involvement in Burundi would have serious negative implications for the region and lead to violence.

Following a failed coup attempt on May 13, there are allegations that some members of the Burundian military have defected, with some going to Rwanda. Two out of the five members of the Independent Electoral Commission have also fled the country to Rwanda.

Refugees in neighbouring countries have said that the Imbonerakure have committed crimes including executions, abductions and torture, which, according to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, “could tip an already extremely tense situation over the edge”.

The ramifications in humanitarian terms are dire. According to Save the Children, about 2 300 children have been separated from their families and fled Burundi over the past six weeks. Parents are staying behind to protect their homes from looting, and to send their children to safety.

“Children as young as six years old have arrived alone at Mahama camp in Rwanda, exhausted and frightened,” said Edwin Kuria, operations manager for Save the Children in East Africa.

“A three-year-old toddler arrived in the camp recently in the care of her 12-year-old sister. Many arrive with bare feet and with only the clothes on their backs.”

According to the UN refugee agency UNHCR, more than 96 000 people have fled clashes between police and anti-government protesters in Burundi and gone to Rwanda, the DRC, Tanzania and Uganda.

The UN said that 60 percent of all newly arrived refugees in Rwanda were children.

There are fears that more will flee as the risk of violence escalates in the run-up to the presidential vote.

Burundi’s economy is suffering as a result of the turmoil, with most foreign donors having withdrawn their aid, which will make it difficult to deliver services. Half of Burundi’s budget came from aid. Without donor funds to run an election, the government will be hard-pressed to fund scheduled elections through its tax revenue.

According to Salim, what the Burundian government needs to do immediately is remove restrictions on the media and internet, cease arbitrary arrests and human rights violations, allow human rights monitors to be deployed and release all detainees. The postponement of elections and brokering an inclusive national dialogue are also needed. The AU must act together to send a strong message that, if conditions don’t improve, sanctions will be considered.

Sunday Independent