It is being called “the intervention that wasn’t.” Less than two months after announcing plans to send a 5,000-strong peacekeeping force to quell the rising violence in Burundi, the African Union backed away from the proposal. It opted, instead, to try to convince President Pierre Nkurunziza and those who oppose his controversial third term to face off at a negotiation table.
According to Newsweek, Algerian Ambassador Smail Chergui, the A.U.’s commissioner for peace and security, said the new plan calls for sending “a high-level delegation” to attempt to persuade Nkurunziza to welcome the peacekeepers.
When the earlier proposal was broached, Nkurunziza threatened to consider the peacekeepers an invading force and respond “accordingly.” His reaction left the diplomats with little confidence in such outside options as a United Nations peacekeeping operation. A memo to the U.N. Security Council sounded a gloomy note. Per Reuters:
[Peacekeeping] chief Herve Ladsous said the U.N. was limited in its ability to combat significant violence in the event no countries stepped up to protect civilians and there was no political process underway.
Still, the A.U. appeared ready to invoke an article in its charter that, according to Newsweek, “permits A.U. intervention in a member state in respect of grave circumstances, namely war crimes, genocide, and crimes against humanity.”
The violence has spiked so high that former Burundian leaders warn that the country is on pace to become “another Rwanda.” Evidence points to at least five mass graves around Bujumbura, the capital, and foreigners have been advised to leave.
With that as background, it seemed a foregone conclusion that – for the first time — the A.U. would employ its loophole to keep a member from plunging into genocide. As Foreign Policy reports:
The move was hailed as a shrewd form of coercive diplomacy and a sign that the African Union might be better prepared than the United Nations to respond to the escalating crisis . . . As top Western and U.N. diplomats wrung their hands over the threat of mass atrocities, the A.U.’s authorization of the African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi stood out as an exemplar of the A.U.’s mantra of “African solutions for African problems.”
But at a summit last weekend in Addis Ababa, where the situation in Burundi topped the agenda and the peacekeeping plan appeared headed for resounding approval, the A.U. suddenly pulled back, declaring that, upon consideration, talk would be preferable to action in this case and expressing the hope that the warring sides could talk to each other – and, if not, that they could at least agree to accept the A.U. as a mediator.
Experts were quick to take a cynical view of the abrupt change of direction. No doubt, they suggested, some African leaders weighed the long-term implications of imposing troops on a fellow A.U. member and found them less than ideal for their own aspirations.
United States President Barack Obama, addressing the A.U. last July, spoke for many throughout the world when he advised African leaders to step down at term’s end. His words were believed aimed at Nkurunziza.
Others, however, have also been reluctant to exit the stage on cue. Take Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe. In power since 1987, he recently vowed not to relinquish the presidential reins until “God says, ‘Come.’” He added: “As long as I am alive, I will lead the country,” and suggested that those who called for him to hand over power were “not democratic.”
It is precisely those wishing to hang on as long as humanly possible who are believed to have had second thoughts about setting a precedent with an A.U.-led intervention. Invoking that provision could open the door for similar action to be visited upon them if and when their time comes and they, too, refuse to go.
So the proposal was tabled, likely for good, to the chagrin of the U.N. and other Western political forces who had gotten their hopes up that the A.U. would take the lead and act decisively on “the Burundi problem.”
And what of the people of Burundi? That Nkurunziza managed to intimidate the A.U. into backing down — and perhaps now believes that he will be left to his own devices — will likely embolden him to carry on with his stated goal to “destroy his enemies.”
Meanwhile, with more than 400 dead and tens of thousands moldering in squalid refugee camps in neighboring nations, there appears no end in sight to the suffering of a people that everyone involved seems all too willing to abandon.