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Will peacekeeper plan help end Burundi violence?

Political violence has made finding dead bodies around Bujumbura an increasingly common occurrence Désiré Nimubona/IRIN
Political violence has made finding dead bodies around Bujumbura an increasingly common occurrence
Plans for the African Union to deploy 5,000 peacekeepers to protect civilians in Burundi have been broadly welcomed, but will they help end months of deadly political unrest ignited by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s quest for a third term?

Friday’s announcement by the AU’s Peace and Security Council was historic for two reasons. It was the first time the AU had invoked a clause allowing it to intervene in a country without permission if the situation is grave enough. And it also lined up the possibility of a first operation for the fledgling East African Standby Force within a member country.

See: Long road to an African rapid reaction force

But experts cautioned that we shouldn’t be getting ahead of ourselves, not only because the United Nations still has to approve the move, but also because Nkurunziza may not allow it.

“It is important to note that the idea of the deployment first has to be approved by the Burundian government,” Stephanie Wolters, head of conflict prevention and risk analysis at the Institute for Security Studies, told IRIN.

If it refuses, the matter goes back to the AU for a vote of heads of state. Two thirds must be in favour in order for the deployment to go ahead, and with several other regional leaders facing mandate issues and wary of setting a precedent for foreign intervention, this is by no means assured.

“Although the African Union charter allows for intervention in a member state in the event of an acute crisis such as genocide, war and crimes against humanity, this does not mean that African heads of state will approve the deployment of troops,” Wolters said.

“Many other heads of state would likely frown upon the possibility that the AU could intervene in their own domestic matters, so a vote in favour of the deployment is far from guaranteed. It would be ground-breaking, as it would be the first time that the AU sends troops to a country without being invited.”

Could such a force actually work?

Phil Clark, a Great Lakes expert at SOAS, University of London, said it was a long overdue response by the AU but doubted the plans would be effective if implemented.

“Most likely the troops will come from the East African Standby Force, which has no direct fighting experience,” Clark told IRIN. “The Standby Force has provided military advisors in Somalia and elsewhere but it has never fired a shot in anger. It seems ill-prepared to deal with the magnitude of the situation in Burundi.”

There would also be concerns about which countries’ soldiers should comprise the force. How, for example, could Rwanda join given Nkurunziza’s allegations that Kigali has been supporting Burundian rebels?

“For these reasons, I doubt the Standby Force can help end the conflict,” said Clark. “It may even inflame the situation if Burundi interprets this as military meddling by its neighbours.” 

Christoph Vogel, a Great Lakes expert at the University of Zurich, agreed.

“Neutrality is an issue,” he told IRIN. “Technically, there are few fully honest brokers in the region. Literally, each neighbour country, for instance, has security concerns and hosts Burundian refugees.”

Experts also voiced concerns about the finances and logistics of such a mission, especially as the AU does not have the resources and would have to rely on outside donors.

Talks not guns

Ultimately, negotiation rather than military intervention is the best chance of a long-term solution to the political unrest, which has left hundreds dead since April and displaced hundreds of thousands more. But experts felt the AU move could still form part of the solution.

“The recent escalation of violence, demands some sort of intervention – if only to work as a buffer and contain violence against civilians,” said Vogel. “However, if not accompanied by a genuine political process – none of which we have seen so far – military intervention is always at risk of becoming peacebuilding lip-service or captured by other interests.”

The Ugandan government, which is chairing regional mediation efforts, has said that Burundi peace negotiations will start soon.

“We hope this week or next week, once the logistics are in place and the parties convene in Kampala, then the talks can start,” Henry Okello Oryem, Uganda's state minister for foreign affairs, told reporters on Monday.

Jason Stearns, from the Center on International Cooperation at New York University, welcomed the AU plans on peacekeepers as a means to an end.

"The deployment of an African Union force might provide the pressure needed to get a real political process under way,” he told IRIN.

“It's not so much having troops who will be engaged in fighting – although it hopefully would put a damper on the violence – but by sending a mission the AU deploys political and diplomatic assets that can help forge a peaceful path out of the current morass.”

Wolters agreed.

“It is very important that the AU take a strong lead on the Burundi crisis and that is why this decision is significant, even if it does not automatically give the AU the green light to deploy,” she said.

How do Burundians feel?

In the flashpoint districts of Bujumbura, where most of the unrest has taken place, including some 87 people killed in the worst day of violence last week, there was relief at the news.

Fidélité Hakizumukama, who owns a beauty salon in the Musaga neighbourhood, told IRIN it was “a good thing as the international community will see the reality or the scale of the massacres that are taking place, especially in the capital.”

Martin Dushime, 31, in Ngagara, said that since protests erupted in April ahead of Nkurunziza’s reelection to a constitutionally dubious third term in July, he had been living each day in “grave fear.”

“I can only welcome with joy the decision to send African Union troops to Burundi for 2 reasons: because there might be a counter-force against the brutality of the ‘security forces’ and secondly so that people can get back to their normal lives: go and see their friends, go and pray, go out for the evening – those small things that today seem to be forgotten in our supposedly anti-establishment districts.”

However, not all were in agreement. 

“I am shocked,” Gad Ndayikunda, a member of the ruling party’s Imbonerakure youth wing, told IRIN. “It’s a way to deprive the Burundian majority of their sovereignty.”

See: Who are the Imbonerakure and is Burundi unravelling?

Nkurunziza led a faction of Hutus against the then Tutsi-dominated army during Burundi’s 1993-2005 civil war and although the country has made great strides since, there are concerns that worsening political violence could deepen any lingering ethnic tensions.


* Additional reporting by Désiré Nimubona in Bujumbura
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