Burundi has just been appointed as chair of the African Union’s Peace and Security Council. In other words: the continental body tasked with solving the crisis in Burundi is now led by a major perpetrator of that crisis. Conflicts of interest don’t come any more clear-cut than that.
Last week, in its vast wood-panelled meeting room in Addis Ababa, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council (PSC) elected a new chairperson for June.
Step forward Dieudonné Ndabarushimana, envoy of the Republic of Burundi. The ambassador is relatively new to his post, having previously served as Burundi’s ambassador to France, and in normal times his appointment would raise no eyebrows.
For Burundi, however, these are not normal times. Ever since President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term in office, the country has witnessed high levels of instability and violence. Popular protests were followed by a brutal government crackdown, while ongoing fighting between government-aligned militias and armed rebel groups has claimed hundreds of lives, and forced hundreds of thousands into exile in neighbouring countries.
Although the East African Community is supposedly leading the negotiations between the government and disgruntled opposition groups, the African Union (AU) – through the PSC – has a continental mandate to resolve the Burundi situation. It is supposed to be doing everything in its (admittedly limited) power to fix Burundi.
Don’t expect much action in June, however. With the Burundian Ambassador’s elevation to the chair, the major protagonist in Burundi’s unrest is now leading the continental body that is supposed to resolve it.
It’s official: the fox is guarding the henhouse. The lunatics have taken over the asylum.
The council’s chairmanship rotates monthly between members, usually (but not always) in alphabetical order. Last month was Botswana. In sticking to the rotation, the AU’s council has strengthened President Nkurunziza’s hand.
“Even with the rotational nature of the position, it sends a message that AU action against Burundi is now almost off the table. Whereas it was on the agenda of the PSC literally two or three times a month throughout 2015, it has hardly been debated at all this year. It’s a worrying sign,” said Liesl Louw-Vaudran, editor of the PSC Report.
Although largely ceremonial, the PSC chair does have significant powers. Most significantly, the incumbent is in charge of the agenda. This month, it will be Ambassador Ndabarushimana who decides what issues the PSC should tackle, and how to go about doing so. It’s unlikely that effective action on Burundi is likely to be very high on his agenda.
Perhaps even more significant is the symbolism of Burundi’s month at the pinnacle of the council. It is a very public vote of confidence in President Nkurunziza’s administration, and a not-so-subtle message to his opponents about where the AU’s loyalties lie. After this, can the AU be trusted as an objective, independent mediator in Burundi?
Ambassador Ndabarushimana did not respond to requests for comment for this story. Neither did the African Union itself. Daily Maverick did engage on Twitter with Albert Shingiro, Burundi’s ambassador to the UN, who initially dismissed any concerns about a potential conflict of interest as “dirty propaganda”. He clarified in a direct message: “[The] AU PSC is not national organ but AU body… during the month [Ambassador Ndabarushimana] will [be] acting as chair of AU board. For AU issues he will be neutral,” said Shingiro.
PSC members are supposed to step out of the room when their own countries are being discussed.
Although initially praised for its strong reaction to the growing violence in Burundi – including calls for President Nkurunziza to step down, and for the deployment of a peacekeeping force – the AU’s approach has softened noticeably in 2016. At the continental body’s last summit in January, leaders controversially approvedBurundi’s appointment to the 15-member PSC, and declined to move forward on the peacekeeping force. Burundi’s substantial troop commitment to the flagship African Union Mission in Somalia may have been a factor in these decisions.
Peace talks, meanwhile, have faltered. Ambassador Ndabarushimana’s appointment comes shortly after the failure of the latest round of talks held in Arusha, Tanzania and facilitated by former Tanzanian president Bernard Mkapa. Burundi’s government only agreed to participate after a major opposition coalition was excluded.
“The most charitable interpretation one can put on Benjamin Mkapa’s Burundi peace talks is that they are a desperate grope in the dark for a resolution to the year-long crisis. The danger of such desperation, though, is that it might do no more than further weaken President Pierre Nkurunziza’s political opponents,” wrote analyst Peter Fabricius for ISS Today.
A less charitable interpretation is that Mkapa and his mediation team, by excluding Nkurunziza’s opponents, is playing directly into the president’s hands. The same charge can now be levelled at the AU.