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The decision of the Peace and Security Council, African Union’s standing decision making body on peace and security matters, to deploy troops to Burundi for human protection purposes even against the consent of the government in Bujumbura has been received with understandable enthusiasm.

It is seen as a bold act manifesting the determination of the continental body and its leadership to live up to AU’s ideals of non-indifference in the face of grave situations threatening the lives of people and ‘African solutions to African problems’. Even those who criticised the AU for not doing enough and limiting itself to issuing statements were quick to endorse and celebrate it.

As historic as the significance of this decision is to the AU and those of us who worked and followed up the AU peace and security decision-making for years, deployment of troops is not a panacea to the crisis in Burundi either. Indeed, the nature of the deteriorating situation involving what the fact-finding mission of the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights called ‘escalating violence and violations of human rights’ cannot wait the arrival of troops in Burundi even with the consent of the government. In any case, Burundi’s remain to be a political crisis that principally requires political solutions with troops playing only a supporting and protective role.

Decision to intervene by force

Following the meeting its held on Burundi on Thursday 17 December during which Burundi gave up its position of chairing the Council, the Peace and Security Council adopted the decision of authorising the deployment of an African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi (MAPROBU). The mission is envisaged to have an initial capacity of 5500 military, police and civilian personnel.

The decision gave the government of Burundi 96 hours for expressing its consent for the deployment of MAPROBU. In the event of non-acceptance of the deployment of MAPROBU, the Council plans ‘to recommend to the Assembly of the Union … the implementation of article 4 (h) of the Constitutive Act relating to intervention in a Member State in certain serious circumstances.’ This represents a decision by the AU that it will deploy MAPROBU even against the consent of the authorities in Bujumbura by using force.


Article 4 (h) stipulates the right of the AU 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.’ There have been many crises in Africa including most recently in Central African Republic and South Sudan exhibiting the occurrence or threat of occurrence of one or combination of the grave circumstances. Yet, Article 4(h) has never before been invoked in any of these previous cases. While there have been instances in which reference was made to the language of Article 4(h), the decision on Burundi marks the first direct use of Article 4(h) of the Constitutive Act for undertaking military intervention for human protection purposes.

If implemented against the consent of Burundi’s government, this decision will be historic and marks a departure from the scope of conflict management and resolution tools that have so far been used by the AU. But as Paul Williams explained, this will not be an easy decision to implement.

A number of factors account for this unprecedented decision.

One such factor is the events of Friday 11 December 2015. Following attacks on military establishments, Bujumbura witnessed its most intense fighting and deadliest response since the beginning of the crisis in April 2015. In the words of the PSC communiqué, ‘there is a real risk of the situation degenerating into widespread violence, with catastrophic consequences for Burundi and the entire region’.

Another factor is the reports that AU received about the escalation of violence and acts of violations of human rights. In this regard, as Paul Williams noted, the information from ‘the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights’ fact-finding mission, which visited Burundi from December 7-13, and the AU’s own human rights observers deployed in Bujumbura’ must also have played a major part.’

The slow pace of the mediation process in a context in which the situation is considered to be deteriorating must have also informed the decision for resorting to deploying troops. The mediation process, despite being around for some times, has not taken off the ground and no peace talks have so far been held.

Unlike troop deployment, peace talks can and should be convened immediately

As discussed by Paul Williams, even if the Burundi government obliges to AU’s request and gives its consent to the deployment of MAPROBU, it will take a minimum of several weeks if not a few months before MAPROBU troops will be on the ground. Apart from the logistical and financial challenges that often slow down deployment by AU, a number of actions have to be taken by the AU Commission. The first of this anticipated and called for in the decision, is generating the required forces. The other is drawing up and adopting the required technical and legal instruments including the concept of operations and the status of force agreement with the government in Bujumbura, if the latter consents.

Even in this best-case scenario, it is clear that there is a need for taking steps and preventing further violence in Burundi pending the actual deployment of MAPROBU. Ensuring that the situation does not deteriorate further in the meantime necessitate that the convening of peace talks is prioritized and urgently pursued.

But indications so far suggest that the authorities in Bujumbura are not consenting to the deployment of troops. While they have not responded officially as yet, Burundi authorities  reported to have said that they neither allow nor need ‘foreign troops’.

The result of Burundi’s refusal is that it will effectively put the operationalization of the decision for deployment of troops on hold. This decision can thus now be enforced only after Article 4(h) decision of the AU Assembly of Heads of State and Government, the supreme decision making body of the AU made up of all leaders of AU member states. Unless an extraordinary summit of the Assembly is convened following the receipt by the AU of formal response from Burundi refusing deployment of troops, the earliest that the Assembly will convene is at the end of January.

Even with the best-case scenario of the AU assembly agreeing to the recommendation of the PSC for the Assembly to exercise its Article 4(h) authority, the use of force even under such circumstances raises fundamental legal questions. Most notably, in the light of the fact that the AU requested the UN to fund the deployment of the troops through the use of assessed contributions, it is not only legally necessary (due to the requirements of Articles 53 (1) of the UN Charter) but also financially imperative that the decision of the AU receives UN Security Council’s stamp of approval. Apart from the fact that such approval is not fully guaranteed, the process of getting such approval will in itself take sometime and can only come fast enough if the situation on the ground deteriorates further.

Given that intervention by the use of force would require much more planning, it will also take much longer time for undertaking the intervention than the time required for deploying troops with consent.

Clearly, the decision of the AU for deploying troops and the diplomatic attention it is likely to attract should not detract the attention of the AU, the region and the international community from mobilising efforts and prioritising the implementation of other policy actions that can and should be implemented immediately to stem further violence.

The first and important immediate step is the urgent convening of peace talks. Every day that passes by without talks starting creates vacuum that allows opportunity for the situation to deteriorate.

Similarly, pending the deployment of the troops, with or without consent, there is urgent need for scaling up human rights and military monitoring. In this regard, one agrees with the statement of South Africa on need for urgent strengthening of the size and operational capacity of AU military experts and human rights observers already on the ground.

Remembering the lesson from Libya

It is to be recalled that the intervention in Libya had the same motivation as AU’s proposed intervention in Burundi. Like the intervention in Libya, the principal motivation of AU’s proposed intervention is protection of civilians. This can be gathered not only from the reference to Article 4 (h) of the Constitutive Act but also from the name of the proposed intervention mission, African Prevention and Protection Mission in Burundi (MAPROBU). Indeed, the mandate that the decision establishing the mission assigned to the mission includes prevention of ‘any deterioration of the security situation, monitor its evolution and report developments on the ground’ and ‘contribution, within its capacity and in its areas of deployment, to the protection of civilian populations under imminent threat.’

One of the major failures of the Libya intervention was that other than the objective of averting the threat of atrocities there was no effective political strategy as to what happens after that objective was achieved. This omission has led to a political vacuum and Libya’s unfortunate descent into chaos. The lesson of this experience for Burundi is that the intervention has to be anchored on and form part of an effective political roadmap that can pull Burundi from its worst crisis since the end of the civil war.

There is no political roadmap for resolving the crisis in Burundi. Such a roadmap can only be drawn through peace talks. Thus, if the intervention was to go ahead and succeed, its success will not be complete without a political roadmap that resolves what remains to be a political crisis.

A lot of time has been spent to get the mediation process off the ground. To date, no peace talks have been convened under the mediation process. The result has been a vacuum that allowed the crisis to fester and be left to fate and the good will of the conflicting parties. As the tragic events of Friday 11 December unambiguously showed, without starting peace talks the crisis is sure to deteriorate to the point of spiralling out of control. The focus and energy of the AU, regional and international actors should thus be on the convening of peace talks as a matter of urgency and priority. The decision for deploying troops should not thus detract any attention from having the peace talks on motion immediately.