The Burundi Ultimatum

The African Union Tests Its Right to Intervene

A protester sets up a barricade during a protest against Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza and his bid for a third term in Bujumbura, Burundi, May 22, 2015. Goran Tomasevic / Reuters

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

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