The symbolic value of the African Union's (AU's) decision at the end of last year to send troops to Burundi should not be underestimated.
For the first time, the continental organisation has taken a decision that could lead to the deployment of an AU force that is not welcomed by the host country government.
Burundi is not Somalia or the Central African Republic, but a country with an elected government - albeit through a contested election; one that has plunged the state into chaos. The question now is whether this gesture from the AU will remain symbolic.
The decision by the Peace and Security Council (PSC) on 17 December was to deploy 5 000 troops and police to Burundi to save lives and restore peace. The situation there has escalated dramatically since President Pierre Nkurunziza announced early last year that he would run for a third term.
In a letter to Nkurunziza, sited by the PSC in a statement, AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma said that she wishes for the government's full cooperation in what will be called the African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi (MAPROBU), but she was certainly under no illusion that it would be accepted by Bujumbura. As expected, Burundi rejected the planned mission on Monday 21 December. This was shortly before the expiry of the 96-hour deadline that the PSC gave to Bujumbura to accept the force.
The AU's Burundi decision has improved its image in the eyes of many critics
By standing up to one of its members on the basis that it has violated the AU Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, and by implementing the provisions of the PSC Protocol on early warning, the AU has improved its image in the eyes of many critics. The perception that the AU is a club of dictators is slowly but surely becoming a thing of the past. The United Nations (UN) backed the AU decision through a statement on 19 December, although it has not passed a resolution in this regard. Financial assistance for the deployment would be crucial to the mission.
The decision to deploy has also given new impetus to mediation efforts to bring peace to Burundi. Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni is the official mediator, but he has been criticised for not doing enough to get the talks going.
It was earlier reported that Dlamini-Zuma had designated Benin's President Thomas Boni Yayi to supplement efforts to mediate between the government and opposition, which could also have spurred Uganda to action. It was thought Boni Yayi could have more success as French speaker from a region not directly concerned with what happens in Burundi. His aeroplane was, however, refused landing rights in Bujumbura and this attempt seemed to have reached a dead end.
So far, talks are scheduled to take place in Arusha between the opposition and the government. This followed the official ceremony to mark the (re)launch of the talks in Entebbe, Uganda, on 28 December.
The Arusha talks, scheduled for this week, have however been postponed after both the government and opposition group CNARED (National Council for the Respect of the Arusha Accord) said it would not attend. CNARED was formed in August last year by civil society organisations and opposition leaders. For talks to succeed, it will need credible mediators, a government that negotiates in good faith and an opposition that authoritatively represents Burundians opposed to the government.
The PSC's move against Burundi did not happen in a vacuum, but was the result of close to a year's consistent pleading with Nkurunziza to adhere to the Arusha agreement of 2000, which limits the president to two terms in office. Violence has escalated in the central African country due to Nkurunziza's third-term bid, with over 400 people being killed in the conflict so far. Over 200 000 people have fled to neighbouring countries. The underlying fear is that Burundi would return to civil war with ethnic undertones, which could affect the entire region.
The underlying fear is that Burundi would return to civil war
Following the presidential elections in Burundi in July 2015, which did not see any AU observers deployed, 20 military and human rights observers were sent to the country by the AU. This number was supposed to increase to a total of 50 human rights observers and 50 military observers, but by late 2015 the requested memorandum of understanding with the government in Bujumbura had not yet materialised.
On 17 October, the PSC also decided to approve sanctions against individuals who were seen to be blocking the process of dialogue. The preliminary report by the African Commission on Human and People's Rights, tabled on 14 December, alleged that grave human rights abuses were taking place in Burundi. This seemed to have clinched the deal as far as stronger AU action was concerned.
Dynamics within the PSC certainly played a role in the decision to deploy a mission. Interestingly, Burundi was elected chairperson of the PSC for December. A West African ambassador to the AU said on the margins of the Africa-China summit in early December that the PSC would not allow Burundi to become chairperson due to the crisis in the country, but apparently this opinion did not win the day. Burundi still became chair according to the PSC's system of alphabetic rotation.
Burundi's ambassador, Rose Ntawe, replaced the former ambassador Alain Nyamitwe, who was appointed as Nkurunziza's foreign minister in May last year. Nyamitwe has been a fervent Nkurunziza supporter, and at the AU-China summit he insisted that 'the issue of peacekeepers is no longer on the table'. This was just before the 17 December PSC decision.
Deploying peacekeepers to Burundi will be no easy task. Even if the AU could persuade the government to accept them, this would likely be under strict conditions and with limited leverage. The AU has done so before in places like Darfur in Sudan. The government in Khartoum reluctantly accepted a joint United Nations and AU peace force (UNAMID) to save face internationally, although it has not made things easy for UNAMID.
The second major challenge is to find the troops to deploy. There has been some confusion over whether this is a task for the African Standby Force (ASF), which is nearing readiness. The PSC communiqué of 17 December indicates that MAPROBU will be placed under the command of the special representative of the AU Commission Chairperson, but the PSC also urges consultations with countries in the region, within the framework of the East African component of the ASF. The East African Community is the official mediator in the crisis in line with the AU's principles of subsidiarity.
Reports in local media in Tanzania indicate that the country is not keen to mobilise troops to what could be a precarious mission. Tanzania is, however, a member of the PSC and was thus part of the decision to deploy.
The Burundi deployment could also be seen as an ideal mission for the African Capacity for Immediate Response to Crises (ACIRC). The rapid force was launched in 2013, but has yet to be deployed. Some within the AU say ACIRC will gradually be phased into the African Standby Force, but there are fundamental differences between the two forces. The ASF is based on Africa's five regions and steered by regional organisations, while ACIRC is deployed centrally from the AU in Addis Ababa.
The AU decision to deploy to Burundi gives new impetus to mediation efforts
The question is being asked whether South Africa, the main driver behind ACIRC, would be ready to join the force against Burundi. A high-ranking South African military official told Rapport newspaper, however, that South Africa does not have the capacity to deploy any additional troops. According to the official, South Africa maximised its capacity with deployments in Darfur, as part of UNAMID, and as part of the Force Intervention Brigade in the Democratic Republic of Congo. However, South African Department of International Affairs spokesperson Clayson Monyela later reportedly said a deployment by South Africa as part of MAPROBU was not excluded.
The calls for South Africa to participate in curbing the Burundi crisis also come from South Africa's historic involvement in the peace negotiations in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Even if it could find the troops, it is unlikely that MAPROBU would deploy before a decision by the Assembly of the AU, given that Burundi has rejected the move. In its 17 December decision, the PSC clearly states that if Burundi were to reject the mission, the PSC would call upon the Assembly to take additional steps in line with its Constitutive Act. The next meeting of the Assembly will happen at its regular summit on 30 and 31 January.
In an interview with Radio France International on 7 January, the AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Smaïl Chergui, however, said even though the AU will have 'the last word' at its next summit, 'it has not yet come to that'. Chergui hoped Bujumbura would still accept the force, which he said was not an 'occupation force', but which would be geared at protecting civilians and serving the people of Burundi.
Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant