African Union Commission chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is making what could be a last-ditch attempt to solve the crisis in Burundi – and secure a positive legacy before she returns to domestic politics as a rumoured presidential candidate.
After weeks of dithering, last weekend Dlamini-Zuma decided to send a special envoy to Burundi, where instability – which the AU should be able to resolve – is threatening the reputation of both the continental body and Dlamini-Zuma personally.
The envoy, Benin’s President Thomas Boni Yayi, was due to visit Burundi on his way home from Johannesburg, where he had attended the Forum on Co-operation between Africa and China meeting, and is yet to put out the fire in a country where political killings are recorded almost every day. More than 200 000 refugees have fled Burundi as a result of the crisis.
The ongoing trouble has led AU critics to point out that the organisation is failing to resolve the unpopular decision of a leader to run for a third term in a small country, and a similar scenario is also on the cards in the massive, resource-rich and strategically central Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Dlamini-Zuma is widely expected to step down after her first four-year term at the AU comes to an end in July next year, and a successful mediation in Burundi could help her leave on a high note. It will also be symbolically important for her to bring peace to Burundi, as Nelson Mandela negotiated the country’s initial power-sharing agreement in the late 1990s. President Jacob Zuma, then Thabo Mbeki’s deputy, also played a major role in getting Pierre Nkurunziza to lay down arms and accept a deal that ultimately led to his ascent to power in 2005.
Dlamini-Zuma is allowed to run for re-election at the AU, but her own political career at home and lack of strong support within the AU could stop her from doing so. ANC insiders consider Dlamini-Zuma one of two strong contenders (alongside Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa) to replace her former husband as president.
Dlamini-Zuma and the AU commissioner for peace and security, Sergui Smail, tried but failed to avert the crisis in Burundi. They visited the country several times before Nkurunziza was elected for a controversial third term in June, in defiance of the AU’s call to postpone elections.
The AU did not send observers to monitor the elections – a rare show of opposition that had little effect on the ground. In October the AU’s 15-member peace and security council decided to impose sanctions on certain individuals in Burundi. “We are taking a strong stand about the situation in Burundi and are not letting up,” an AU source said during the China-Africa meeting in Johannesburg.
But AU restrictions on what it calls the “rules of subsidiarity” have hampered it in its decision-making and interventions. Because Burundi is part of the East African Community, regional heads of state took charge when the crisis broke out and appointed Uganda’s president, Yoweri Museveni, as mediator.
Not much was expected from this mediation, however. Museveni has been in power for almost three decades and is running again for president in February. After a few initial visits to Bujumbura, he delegated this task to his defence minister.
Organisations such as the International Crisis Group have pointed out that the AU has the power to solve the conflict in Burundi.
“If Africa’s problems need African solutions, as we truly believe, this is the time for the African Union to step up and prove its worth,” said the group’s chief executive, Jean-Marie Guéhenno, vice-chairperson of its board of trustees Ayo Obe and board member Fola Adeola in a joint statement recently.
The group called on the AU to facilitate direct talks between the Burundian government and the opposition because, it said, the East African Community is too divided to handle this alone.
Local media in Benin has pointed out that Boni Yayi and Nkurunziza are both members of evangelical churches. Nkurunziza is said to be a lay preacher; Boni Yayi also speaks French.
If Boni Yayi can convince the government in Bujumbura to ensure the safety of all its citizens and open up real dialogue, it will be a step in the right direction. If he can make a deal where others have failed, it will be a feather in the cap for Dlamini-Zuma and the AU, but this is far from certain.
Despite launching the catchy Agenda 2063 project for a “prosperous and peaceful Africa”, Dlamini-Zuma’s term at the AU was tarnished by her bruising election to the position of chairperson in 2012. The voting by heads of state had to be postponed for six months before she managed to get a clear victory over her opponent, Jean Ping from Gabon.
She also hasn’t managed to erase the age-old division between Francophones and Anglophones in the AU. Besides, her record when it comes to peace and security has been uneven.