analysisBy Liesl Louw-Vaudran
In what looks like a classic case for the African Union's (AU's) early-warning mechanisms, alarm bells are growing louder over the political tensions in Burundi. Detentions, human rights violations and political strife are increasing in the country in the run-up to presidential elections in 2015.
There is also growing concern that the conflict between the opposition and the ruling Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces pour la défense de la démocratie (CNDD-FDD) party of President Pierre Nkurunziza has left the Arusha power-sharing deal, signed in August 2000, in tatters.
Burundi's political history has been marked by tension between Hutus and Tutsis, and the Arusha Accord provided mechanisms to ensure the delicate ethnic power balance does not spill over into conflict. Yet, indications are that this fragile peace is now under threat.
In the latest turn of events, media in Burundi reported earlier this month on allegations that arms were being smuggled to the youth wing of the CNDD-FDD, the infamous Imbonerakure (Kirundi for 'those who see far'). The Imbonerakure has been accused of violent incidents against the opposition, including the murder of an opposition youth leader in February this year.
In the context of increasing violence, the news made headlines and prompted the United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon to 'express his concern and urge the relevant national authorities to investigate the reports,' according to the Security Council Report.
This is not the first time the UN has spoken up about the situation in Burundi. The UN Office in Burundi (BNUB) has been involved in various efforts to 'ease political tensions' in the country, and has announced plans to convene a dialogue with the various political parties in Burundi next month.
Last month, on 7 March, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also denounced restrictions of civil and political rights in Burundi.
The AU has also spoken out about the situation in Burundi - a welcome change from its usual stance of only engaging with actors behind the scenes.
On 24 February, Boubacar Diarra, the head of the AU Office in Bujumbura, expressed his concern over the situation - particularly the plight of refugees and disarmament of rebels, adding that the AU supports continuous dialogue between the ruling party and the opposition. 'This dialogue is necessary for the respect of the letter and the spirit of the Arusha Accord,' he said.
This time, it might be premature to accuse the international community of ignoring nascent crises on the continent. However, the concern expressed by the United States, the UN and the AU has to date not been followed up by the region, nor by South Africa - a former mediator in the crisis.
Burundi is seen as one of South Africa's major foreign policy successes and one of the few places where its troops have made a real difference in establishing peace in a conflict area. Yet, it has apparently now taken its eye off the ball.
How long will the situation have to deteriorate before neighbouring countries get involved? African heads of state have a dismal record when it comes to criticising constitutional transgressions in other countries. If the ruling party manages to change the constitution in order to secure a third term for Nkurunziza, will there be an outcry from the East African Community?
The situation in Burundi has also failed to appear on the agenda of the International Conference of the Great Lakes (ICGL) discussions, which focused largely on the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and the Central African Republic (CAR). Burundi is, for example, not mentioned in the final communiqué of the recent fifth Ordinary Summit held in January in Luanda.
One could argue, with the dire situation in other parts of the region, it does have a lot on its plate. But should heads of state wait until more lives are lost before concern is expressed?
In its latest edition, the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) Peace and Security Council (PSC) Report recommends firmer action from the international community, particularly the AU to 'protect the spirit of the Arusha Agreement and preserve the power-sharing structure of the current constitution.'
The report lists the numerous incidents that point to threats against the fragile power balance that had taken years of difficult negotiations to establish.
The dismissal by Nkurunziza of the former opposition vice-president, Bernard Busokoza, from the Union for National Progress (UPRONA), and the subsequent resignation of three URPRONA ministers, is one such incident.
In addition, the efforts by the ruling party to reduce the current voting quorums to simple majorities, is another sign that power-sharing might be ending.
The proposed constitutional changes - which would also, controversially, provide for a third term for Nkurunziza - were rejected by Parliament in March this year.
However, the leader of the ruling party, following the vote, insisted that Nkurunziza is still its presidential candidate. There are indications the third-term option might be brought to the constitutional court.
'More than a year before the elections, violent confrontations and mass detentions have already raised important questions about the future stability of the country,' states the PSC Report. 'The current political climate challenges the possibility of peaceful and legitimate elections.'
Increasingly, it is not only the party political conflict that is raising concern, but reconciliation between ordinary citizens as well.
In a report released in February this year, the International Crisis Group (ICG) warned of the danger of hasty land reforms that could lead to renewed conflict in the rural areas of this small country; one of the tricky issues being the repatriation of Hutu refugees to land now owned by Tutsis.
Burundi is only roughly 28 000 square kilometres, making it slightly bigger than its neighbour Rwanda, which has a similar colonial history and ethnic make-up.
Yet, intervention by outsiders might be easier said than done. From Bujumbura the message is clear: criticise us and you're out.
According to local media, the above-mentioned arms-smuggling allegations emanated from a confidential UN report. The Imbonerakure, the CNDD-FDD youth wing, have demanded an apology from the UN and the government subsequently expelled Paul Debbie, Security Chief at the UN office in Bujumbura.
Locally, Burundi media are increasingly restricted, and non-governmental organisations find they have very little space to manoeuvre.
The life sentences dished out to members of the opposition Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD), after violent confrontation with the police in March this year, were likely to be part of a strategy by the government to discourage all dissent.
Burundi might be less significant than some of its big, mineral-rich neighbours. However, turning a blind eye to what happens in the country would be a serious mistake.
- Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant