Why Canada should be wary of a UN mission to Burundi


A few months ago, there were rumours that the federal government, given its military pivot from war-fighting to peacekeeping, might dispatch Canadian Forces personnel to join a potential United Nations force in Burundi, where President Pierre Nkurunziza’s unconstitutional third term had sparked violence. The option of sending UN or African Union peacekeepers to Burundi was scuttled when Mr. Nkurunziza announced that they would be seen as invaders.

On April 1, the UN Security Council approved an international police force for Burundi that will apparently work with the Burundian military to monitor the security situation, and promote the rule of law and respect for human rights. The Burundi government has apparently accepted the resolution.

If the Canadian government is considering sending Canadian law-enforcement professionals to Burundi, the decision must be made with great care. And, if any are sent, they need thorough preparation and support.

It is not good enough to send Canadian police (or soldiers) to Burundi or other francophone African countries simply because they speak French. This approach has led to disaster and near disaster. In 1994, a woefully unsupported General Roméo Dallaire – largely appointed because he was a francophone who was not Belgian or French – was in command of a UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda. While Gen. Dallaire did his best and saved lives, the negligence around the mission contributed to a tragedy that was far from Canada’s or the world’s finest hour.

In 1996, in a now mostly forgotten event, Canadian military personnel were suddenly sent to Africa to participate in an ill-conceived and abortive multinational humanitarian intervention in eastern Zaire (now Democratic Republic of the Congo), with some briefly detained at Kigali airport in Rwanda.

The fact that the proposed UN police detachment will have to work with Burundian security forces is problematic. Emerging from several decades of civil war in the mid-2000s, the Burundian military represents a delicate amalgamation of potentially conflicting elements made up of remnants of the old Tutsi-dominated military regime and former members of several Hutu rebel groups.

Indeed, the crisis in Burundi escalated in May, 2015, when army commander Godefroid Niyombare staged an ultimately unsuccessful coup against Mr. Nkurunziza. This did not represent a return to the Tutsi-Hutu conflict, as Mr. Niyombare and Mr. Nkurunziza are both former Hutu rebel leaders.

Although obviously divided, the Burundian military should not be taken lightly as it has fought in the ongoing African Union war against Islamist militants in Somalia and, in this capacity, has received support and training from the United States.

Burundi’s history is not well known and will surprise many Canadians familiar with simplistic popular films about the 1994 genocide in neighbouring Rwanda in which the Tutsi are cast as the “good guys” who were victims and the Hutu as the “bad guys” who perpetrated terrible crimes. In Burundi, from 1965 to 2005, a Tutsi-dominated military regime carried out genocide against educated Hutu and Hutu students, and clung to power through discrimination and terror. Of course, and particularly given this history, the current fears of Burundi’s Tutsi minority must be taken seriously.

While the Canadian government must not ignore disturbing events in Burundi, it should avoid rushing into a crisis without adequate knowledge or preparation. This could make the situation in Burundi worse and unnecessarily put Canadians at risk.

Tim Stapleton is a professor in the department of history at the University of Calgary.

The Globe and Mail.

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