After rebel forces in Burundi coordinated a round of attacks on military facilities in Bujumbura on December 11, the government began rounding up suspected militants the following day and killing them execution-style on the streets. Dozens died, many of them civilians. The African Union’s Peace and Security Council held an emergency meeting several days later and emerged with an ultimatum for Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza: accept a 5,000-strong peacekeeping force or face more sanctions or even a forcible military intervention. He had 96 hours to decide.
The African Union was one of the guarantors of the 2000 Arusha Accords, a peace agreement that helped settle the country’s decades-long civil war. As such, the union faced a legal, political, and moral responsibility to intervene in Burundi after Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term as president, a move that dramatically raised the risk of returning the country to armed conflict. When Nkurunziza announced his candidacy in late April, breaching the two-term limit set forth by the accords, the country erupted in protest; demonstrators died in clashes with authorities and a rebel group attempted to overthrow Nkurunziza in May. But the violence in December surpassed those events, by far.
The African Union’s ultimatum, issued through a communiqué from its Peace and Security Council on December 17, comes after many previous attempts to resolve Burundi’s political crisis. The union’s earlier attempts failed, however, even though it has used nearly its full arsenal of conflict resolution tools. Even before the violence first erupted, the union had flagged Burundi and monitored it through its early warning system. Before the 2015 election, the African Union Commission spent a year trying to persuade Nkurunziza not to stand for a third term. This included dispatching a high-level mission on March 27, led by Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, and engaging its Panel of the Wise, a group of eminent African elders, in its preventive efforts.
After the attempted coup in May, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council authorized the Eastern Africa Standby Force (one of the five regional forces that make up the African Standby Force) to begin contingency planning for a peace support operation, in case this became necessary. The union also authorized the deployment of up to 100 human rights monitors and military observers to report on violence and human rights violations, particularly in Bujumbura. To date, only ten of these observers have been deployed, because Burundi has insisted that they work in tandem with Burundian officials to produce a joint report. In October, the African Union facilitated a mediation process that would involve an inter-Burundian dialogue between the government, civil society representatives, and opposition movements, which was led by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni. Around the same time, the union authorized sanctions against key Burundian leaders “whose actions and statements contribute to the perpetuation of violence and impede the search for a solution,” as it wrote in a statement, and began compiling a list of those who had perpetrated violence with an eye toward future prosecution. Finally, on December 7, just before the December 11–12 crisis, the African Union sent a fact-finding mission composed of members of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights to Bujumbura. The preliminary findings revealed a serious potential for escalation and the perpetration of crimes that would fit the definition of “grave circumstances” set out in the AU’s Constitutive Act. Under article 4(h), the AU has the right to intervene militarily under such circumstances, which include war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.
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