East Africa won’t tackle Burundi crisis


After the Burundian government’s glaring absence at the fifth and final round of dialogue on October 30 under the East African Community’s initiative to resolve the crisis in that country, the talks ended with no tangible results.

The process has been hampered by regional leaders’ apparent lack of will to challenge President Pierre Nkurunziza on rights abuses or press for accountability. Many of them have their own human rights records to be concerned about.

The crisis began when Nkurunziza decided to run for a controversial third term in 2015. Security forces have killed hundreds of people as they quashed peaceful protests, the independent media and civil society organisations have been decimated and more than 390 000 Burundians have fled to neighbouring countries.

Nkurunziza cemented his hold on power with a constitutional referendum earlier this year. The vote — which he won and which enables him to stay in power until 2034 — was carried out amid widespread ill-treatment of citizens by local authorities, the police and members of the ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure.

Human Rights Watch and other organisations continue to document accounts of “disappearances”, extrajudicial killings, rape and torture.

Some leaders in the region have used similar tactics to entrench their hold on power — attempting to maintain a veneer of democracy by holding referendums and elections, but cracking down on the political opposition and pro-democracy activists. This has made their involvement in efforts to resolve Burundi’s crisis appear less than genuine.

Important lessons should be learned from West Africa, where the regional block Ecowas — the Economic Community of West African States — has acted decisively in the face of attempts to undermine democracy and, at times, denounced human rights abuses and protected civilians. Ecowas, sometimes with the backing of the African Union, has taken a strong stance against unconstitutional seizures of power, including in Guinea in 2009, Guinea Bissau in 2012, Burkina Faso in 2015 and Mali in 2012. It has imposed travel bans and frozen the assets of rights abusers. In January 2017, it persuaded the Gambia’s former leader, Yahya Jammeh, to respect election results and step down.

Ecowas exemplifies how a commitment to human rights norms and democratic principles can trump financial constraints, differences between the region’s Anglophone and Francophone countries, and concerns about interference. A key driver of the bloc’s success is its groundbreaking 2001 Protocol on Democracy and Good Governance, which requires member states to fulfil the core principles of democratic governance, human rights and the rule of law.

Such efforts would be difficult to replicate today in Central and East Africa, where the dominance and solidarity among entrenched and often abusive leaders limit their ability to muster the political will to publicly denounce their counterparts’ rights violations.

Introducing “external” stakeholders with strong regional leverage and moral legitimacy might revitalise the process. A country such as South Africa should have a vested interest in helping to resolve Burundi’s crisis, given its historic role as a broker of the 2000 Arusha Peace process, when Nelson Mandela’s efforts helped to end the country’s 12-year civil war. A new South African-led initiative could move forward under the auspices of the AU.

By playing a leading role, South Africa — whose president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has made a commitment to restore Mandela’s legacy of leadership that transcends narrow national interests across Africa and beyond — would present fresh hope for resolving Burundi’s crisis.

Such an initiative would have the mandate to place justice and accountability firmly at the heart of the negotiations, reaffirming human rights norms laid out in the AU charter and its other key documents.

As illustrated by the Ecowas experience, regional peace and security are best secured when backed by a rights-based approach and a democratic agenda. In the case of Burundi, that requires African leadership to initiate and sustain a genuine rights-based security effort that can bring relief to victims, sanction rights abusers, avert mass atrocities and, ultimately, establish a foundation for stability and ethical regional leadership.

Carine Kaneza Nantulya is the Africa advocacy director at Human Rights Watch

Subscribe to the M&G

These are unprecedented times, and the role of media to tell and record the story of South Africa as it develops is more important than ever.

The Mail & Guardian is a proud news publisher with roots stretching back 35 years, and we’ve survived right from day one thanks to the support of readers who value fiercely independent journalism that is beholden to no-one. To help us continue for another 35 future years with the same proud values, please consider taking out a subscription.

Related stories

The natural resource curse in Cabo Delgado

A humanitarian crisis looms as a violent insurgency continues to sweep over northern Mozambique. As many flee to safety, the question remains: who, or what, fuels the fire?

Women are entitled to own land

Too many laws and customs in too many African countries still treat women as minors

The challenges of delivering a Covid-19 vaccine in Africa requires a new approach

It is imperative that we train healthcare workers and participate in continent-wide collaboration

We should not ignore Guinea’s constitutional coup

Citizens have for a year protested against the president seeking a third term in office despite a two-term limit. Many have been killed — and 90 more people died in this week’s crackdown

The African Union’s (un)official statement on the US elections

The United States has never been shy to pass judgment on African elections. What does it look like when Africa passes judgment on America’s chaotic vote?

Manifesto against the presidency for life in Africa

If we do not take care, presidents will make lawlessness the standard of our civic life. Let’s make sure it does not come to that!

Subscribers only

Toxic power struggle hits public works

With infighting and allegations of corruption and poor planning, the department’s top management looks like a scene from ‘Survivor’

Free State branches gun for Ace

Parts of the provincial ANC will target their former premier, Magashule, and the Free State PEC in a rolling mass action campaign

More top stories

Five suspects arrested in Senzo Meyiwa case

Police minister Bheki Cela announced on Monday that his team has arrested five suspects who were allegedly involved in the killing of former Bafana Bafana captain Senzo Meyiwa.

WSU suspends classes and exams to avoid the spread of...

The university says it has to take the precautionary measures because 26 students have tested positive on its East London campus

Ithala backs its embattled chairperson

Roshan Morar is being investigated in connection with KwaZulu-Natal education department backpack sanitiser tender worth R4-million and a batch of face masks that vanished

Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza: Liberating Africa from land of liberté

The cultural and political activist is on a quest to bring looted treasures back home

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…

The best local and international journalism

handpicked and in your inbox every weekday