5 March 2016

Burundi: AU Now Just Like Its Predecessor, All Talk, No Action


It's 10 months since Burundi erupted in violence sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza's quest for a third term and seven months since he bagged his wish against street protests from many of his people and the international community.

When violence broke out, optimism was high that regional and international powerbrokers would be in position to put the fires out and help parties to maintain the Arusha political consensus that ended over a decade of civil war.

However, as you read this, this optimism has been replaced with pessimism. And it's not hard to understand the source of this dejection.

First, while many believed the East African community leadership would be more than willing and able to save Burundi from itself, so far, the community has remained divided or even indifferent to the conflict.

Secondly, the African Union, despite its high promise at birth of championing "African solutions to African problems," has also turned out to be, like its predecessor the OAU, all talk and no action.

From AU's flip-flop, enter the United Nations. Like the latter, this too first raised the issue of sending peacekeepers. Instead of acting on its word, its experts added fuel to the fire by claiming that, indeed, as Bujumbura had claimed, Rwanda was recruiting Burundian refugees to cause instability in the country.

The net result of all this is fourfold: first, as it stands, President Nkurunziza has not only been able to redefine the problem away from internal violent contestations over his third term to making it a Rwandan problem, but has also been able to make sections of the international community to agree with him.

Secondly, diplomatically, President Nkurunziza's government has scored big and seems to be defining the terms of the much talked about "inclusive dialogue." This is a consequence not only of failure by fellow leaders to tell President Nkurunziza the truth which is that he is the source of the problem but also legitimising his leadership through visits with no clear known agenda.

With the exception of a few leaders -- like Kofi Annan -- who clearly said President Nkurunziza lost legitimacy to lead, the rest have remained silent.

Thirdly, as the world avoided the truth and promised Burundians what it couldn't deliver, President Nkurunziza's government was busy decimating civil centres of power that exposed his misrule such as the media and NGOs. Today, independent media is no more and neither is the robust civil society the country used to have.

This means that even if the country is saved from renewed war, by the time that happens, President Nkurunziza may have remade the country in his own wish --with monopoly over all centres of power --including civil and business.

Fourth, sensing that neither the region nor the rest of the world was serious about acting on promises, Bujumbura has decided to play a long political and diplomatic game that will keep him in power.

That is, while government vows commitment to political dialogue; it also seeks to define who can or can't attend. In between, it promises to release political prisoners and recant arrest warrants it issued against its opponents.

While UN's Ban Ki Moon applauds this as a "major step and willingness" on the part of government to move "inclusive dialogue" forward, reports from organisations like Human Rights Watch indicate violence, killings, arrests and imprisonment without trial increased since September last year and there are no signs of let up.

Thus, it's possible to state that President Nkurunziza has been able to correctly read and exploit regional divisions and international community droopiness despite many commentators underestimating his diplomatic footwork and social capital to influence outcomes.

That he could pull off this surprise, we can now predict that President Nkurunziza will be able to serve out his five year presidential term, however unhappily.

Nonetheless, knowing the characteristic "stubbornness" of Burundians and the culture of violence in this part of the world, we can add that, yes, Nkurunziza may eat his third term but may never bring peace nor unity to his country.

Dr Christopher Kayumba, PhD, is a senior lecturer at the School of Journalism and Communication, the University of Rwanda, and lead consultant at MGC Consult International Ltd, Kay Plaza Building, Kimoronko Road, Kisimenti, Kigali.


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