As violent protests continue to sweep through Burundi, African leaders have vetoed an AU Peace and Security Council proposal to deploy 5,000 troops to the country. Picture: REUTERS/GORAN TOMASEVIC
As violent protests continue to sweep through Burundi, African leaders have vetoed an AU Peace and Security Council proposal to deploy 5,000 troops to the country. Picture: REUTERS

ON JANUARY 30, the African Union (AU) had an opportunity to etch its name in human history at its summit in Addis Ababa, but it failed to take up that opportunity.

On December 17, the AU’s Peace and Security Council agreed to deploy 5,000 troops to Burundi following an increase in violence in the country. To actualise the plan, a two-thirds majority of African leaders voting in favour of the intervention was required at the summit.

Despite the support of United Nations (UN) secretary-general Ban Ki-moon for the deployment of troops, the African heads of state backed down from actively intervening and chose instead to send a team of delegates to "foster dialogue" in Burundi.

The unwillingness of Africa’s leaders to take an active stance to end the violence in Burundi has cast a shadow over the credibility of the AU in its mission to assuage conflict on the continent.

The conflict in Burundi can be traced to April last year when protests erupted after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for a third term.

Shortly after the constitutional court passed a ruling enabling the president to stand for re-election, Burundi experienced a failed coup attempt orchestrated by members of the military.

In July, Nkurunziza won the disputed election and shortly thereafter was sworn into office as president.

The protests continued and the repression unleashed by the country’s security forces on civilians intensified.


WHAT began as antigovernment protests soon culminated into fullscale violence between the security forces (and government supporters) and antigovernment protesters.

According to the UN, the conflict has resulted in the security forces, government supporters and members of opposition political parties committing human rights abuses against one another and civilians.

The UN further noted that since the protests began at least 400 people have been killed, 3,500 arrested and more than 230,000 have fled the violence and sought refuge in neighbouring countries.

As the situation deteriorated, the international community grew increasingly alarmed that the conflict may transform into an ethnic one due to the region’s volatile history. This evoked memories of the Burundian civil war which occurred in the 1990s and the Rwandan genocide.

To make matters worse, a leaked UN memo written by the head of its department of peace operations revealed that the global organisation was not only ill-equipped, but also lacked the political framework to prevent a genocide in Burundi should the conflict escalate.

Subsequently, the whole world watched and awaited the worst. Then, at the 15-member AU Peace and Security Council meeting at the level of ambassadors in December, the bold decision to deploy AU forces to Burundi was made — regardless of whether the Burundian government consented to this.

In addition to the aggravated conflict situation in the country, the council’s decision was based on the negative domestic and regional effects of the violence. The council invoked article 4(h) of the AU Constitutive Act that declares the "right of the AU to intervene in a member state pursuant to a decision of the assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity".


YET, when the Peace and Security Council met at the level of heads of state on January 30, a totally different scenario emerged when some leaders rejected the deployment of troops without the Burundian government’s consent.

At the core of this disagreement are the concepts of intervention and state sovereignty, which are often misconstrued as mutually exclusive. The concept of noninterference aims to protect the sovereignty of a nation state. In other words, the state has the right to defend its interests without interference from other states. In Africa, the concept of sovereignty adopts a more sensitive significance due to its colonial legacy, where foreign powers intervened in African political affairs.

It is for this reason that one of the objectives of the AU is to "defend the sovereignty, territorial integrity and independence of its member states". It is this provision the Burundian government invoked when it objected to the AU’s decision to deploy peacekeepers in its state.

In the aftermath of the massacres that occurred in Cambodia, Rwanda and Kosovo, the international community was concerned about formulating measures to prevent these from recurring.

These concerns provided the impetus for the UN to devise strategies for conflict prevention that included the right to protect. One of the main elements of this, in addition to conflict prevention and reconstruction, is military intervention — which aims to avert genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.

Military intervention is effected when a state is unable, or unwilling, to prevent its population from suffering serious harm as a result of internal conflict, insurgency, repression or state failure. In such a case, the right to intervene supersedes the principle of noninterference.

In December, the AU’s Peace and Security Council decided that Burundi possessed all the characteristics that would require a military intervention under the right to protect — but its leaders saw otherwise.

It appears that the scepticism of certain leaders concerning the right to protect or, more specifically, a military intervention was enough to dissuade the AU from intervening in Burundi.

The AU summit could have been the turning point in the continental organisation’s history. It could have sent a strong message to leaders who, under the mantle of democracy, persecute their people, fail to respect the principles of good governance, and exploit loopholes in the legal system in order to remain in power.

A strong message from the AU to these leaders who fail to respect the rights of their people would have contributed greatly to the AU’s intonation of "African solutions to African problems".


INSTEAD, the AU’s credibility and reputation was dealt a solemn blow as heads of state failed to foster a unilateral agreement to deploy peacekeepers in the troubled country.

The ineptitude of African leaders to intervene in the escalating conflict reflects John Stuart Mill’s prescient statement: "Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends than that good men should look on and do nothing."

In the meantime, civilians in Burundi, refugees cowering in neighbouring states, and the international community at large watch from the periphery with great incertitude at the impending bleak future of the country.

Once again, it seems that the quibbles of the continent’s political leaders have resulted in a failure to proffer African solutions to African problems.

• Chelin is as an independent conflict analyst