Burundi and the Responsibilities of the African Union

By Linda-Ann Akanvou

After a long civil war, Burundi seemed on the path to recovery until April 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term. Since then, the country has become immersed in a deep social and political crisis. For the past year, Human Rights Watch has documented violence and abuses perpetrated by both government and rebel forces. The African Union and international agencies need to rethink their policies towards African leaders that disregard constitutions and their responsibilities for the well-being of the people they represent. If ignored, the Burundian crisis could create a major regional crisis with heavy humanitarian, economic, and political costs.

The 13-year civil war that ended in 2005 left at least 300,000 people dead. With a GDP per capita of $286 in 2014, Burundians were already among the poorest people in the world. The same year, the country ranked 184 out of 186 in the Human Development Index. Even before the 2015 crisis, reports indicated that living conditions were deteriorating for most Burundians. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 247,581 new Burundian refugees have been identified in neighboring countries since the beginning of April 2015, the majority in Tanzania and Rwanda. The World Health Organization (WHO) has expressed its concern about conditions in Tanzania's Kagunga village, where the original population of 11,382 has increased to over 90,000 since April.

The economic consequences of this crisis have deep implications for the country and region at large. The government recently estimated that the "insurrection" cost at least $32.7 million in material damage. Half of the country's budget comes from foreign aid and one of its main financial backers, Belgium, has already threatened to withdraw aid if Nkurunziza remains in power. The East African Community (EAC), comprising of Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and Burundi, has undertaken projects to boost the region's economy, such as a railway connecting the region's main cities. Yet if the Great Lakes region is perceived as unstable, potential long-term investors would keep a distance. The crisis in Burundi is not only losing any economic attractiveness it may have gained in the last decade, but is also impeding the development of the region.

Have the AU and the international community failed to protect civilians?

Article 4 of the Constitutive Act of the African Union says that the AU has the "right to intervene in a Member State pursuant to a decision of the Assembly in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity." The same article states that the "respect for democratic principles, human rights, the rule of law and good governance" is one of the AU principles. In concordance with the act, in December 2015 the African Union's Peace and Security Council unequivocally condemned the violence in Burundi and pledged to send a 5,000-strong peacekeeping force. Following this declaration, President Nkurunziza warned the AU that its plan to send peacekeepers to Burundi would be treated as an invasion. At the end of its summit on January 31, 2016, the AU decided not to send troops but instead to "negotiate" with the government. After negotiations, President Nkurunziza agreed on February 26 to allow the deployment of 100 human rights observers and 100 military monitors to Burundi.

The agreement that has been praised as a step toward stability and peace is in reality evidence of the AU's weakness vis-à-vis its members. Although the deployment of observers may prevent the situation from deteriorating, this case clearly shows the limited ability of the AU to respond effectively to crises. As an organization that on paper seeks the well-being of its population, the AU has not done enough in this crisis to prove its commitment to its principles. Acting tough toward Burundi would have set an example and demonstrated that the AU is committed to protecting the population of Burundi if the state fails to do so. AU action could have encouraged the United Nations and the international community to take strong measures as well.

The manipulation and modification of constitutions is not a problem isolated to Burundi, nor is it unusual in Africa. In the last two decades, leaders in Algeria, Uganda, Cameroon, Chad, Gambia, and Gabon modified their respective constitutions to either allow the outgoing president to run for an extra term or to completely abolish term limits. These constitutional changes often resulted in the deaths and displacement of hundreds of people.

The AU must balance the need to intervene with respect for the sovereignty of states, and African leaders should be held accountable for the damage they inflict on their people in their search for power. A fundamental principle of modern constitutionalism is that nobody, regardless of his status in society, is above the law. The African Union must strive to enforce this principle.

Linda-Ann Akanvou holds a Master in International Affairs from Penn State University and a Master of Finance from the University of Hassan II - Casablanca. With experience in both the public and private sectors, she focuses on the role of international relations in economic development. She is also an Africa fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.