President Jacob Zuma’s weekend visit to Burundi ended in ignominy. As his fellow heads of state departed, Zuma’s plane remained stranded on the tarmac at Bujumbura International Airport, forcing the president to stay in troubled Burundi for an unscheduled extra night. He wasn’t happy.
“This plane is compromising his safety and it is embarrassing,” said South African National Defence Force spokesman Siphiwe Dlamini. “We need [a new plane] like yesterday. Not even tomorrow. It is very critical. This is not an isolated incident.”
Zuma was in Burundi to lead a high-level delegation of the African Union, comprised of five heads of state (from South Africa, Ethiopia, Gabon, Senegal and Mauritania). The delegation was supposed to meet with Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza, and persuade him to co-operate with regional mediation efforts designed to end the emerging conflict in Burundi.
Like Zuma’s plane, Burundi’s peace process has struggled to take off. Nkurunziza has been notably unwilling to engage directly with the main opposition groups, which have been hampered by a lack of co-ordination. It hasn’t helped that the mediator appointed to lead the process, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, has been distracted by domestic politics: his controversial re-election campaign concluded earlier this month (to no one’s surprise, he was re-elected).
Meanwhile, the situation in Burundi continues to deteriorate. Refugees continue to pour across the country’s borders (260,000 people and counting), while even more have been internally displaced. There are frequent incidents of violence in the capital, including mysterious disappearances and summary executions, and the situation in the more rural areas is likely to be even worse. The reason we don’t really know what’s going on outside the capital is because of the government’s near-complete elimination of independent media and civil society organisations. We do know, however, that rebel militias are gaining strength in border regions, with alleged support from Rwandan security forces, in preparation for an all-out conflict.
Into this delicate situation arrived the AU’s high-level panel. It was not quite the game-changing intervention that the AU had threatened in December, when its Peace and Security Council voted to send a 5,000-strong peacekeeping mission to the country, a decision hailed at the time as evidence that the AU was no longer a paper tiger, but was really taking charge of continental security issues.
Alas, the mission was short-lived: even before it got to the planning stage, heads of state at the AU Summit in January scrapped the idea, much to the delight of Burundi’s energetic foreign minister, who declared the decision a “vindication” of his government. In place of the peacekeepers, the AU decided to send a few presidents to Bujumbura to pressure Nkurunziza. So much for the continental body’s newfound assertiveness.
Zuma, as the man responsible for mediating the peace process that brought an end to Burundi’s last civil war in the early 2000s, was a natural choice to lead a high-level delegation. He welcomed the assignment, which perhaps provided a welcome respite from his many troubles on the home front, and gave him a chance to show off his credentials as a statesman.
He did not take this chance.
The high-level panel struggled to get through to a stubborn Nkurunziza, as their final statement reveals. Despite describing the visit as “fruitful and productive”, in reality the delegation failed to extract any meaningful concessions from the Burundian government.
The government’s first commitment, to “continue the steps it has begun to open up space for free political activity by the people of Burundi and ensure the freedom of the media”, is ironic given that the government has been actively closing civil society space and limiting media freedom over the last year.
Its second commitment, to allow the AU to deploy 100 human rights observers and 100 military observers “to monitor the situation” is merely a rehash of a previous commitment to allow AU observers in, one which has been repeatedly stymied. Observers are right to remain sceptical until the observers are actually on the ground, and even then their impact will be limited by resources and access.
In other words, the panel achieved nothing new. Most significantly, it failed to extract a concrete promise from Nkurunziza to attend genuinely inclusive peace talks. In the past few months, Burundi’s government has said it is happy to attend talks, but only if it got to choose who is represented at those talks. Hardly a recipe for peace.
A frustrating trip for the South African president was capped by the breakdown of his presidential plane, forcing him to stay longer than he would have liked in Bujumbura. It’s hard to miss the symbolism of the technical failure, however: If even President Zuma can’t get off the ground, is there any real hope that the peace process can achieve lift off? DM
Photo: Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza (R) embraces his South African counterpart Jacob Zuma (R) as he departs after an Africa Union-sponsored dialogue in an attempt to end months of violence in the capital Bujumbura, February 27, 2016. The African Union will send 100 human rights monitors and 100 military monitors to Burundi, South Africa’s president said on Saturday after a trip to the tiny nation that is facing its worst crisis since a civil war ended a decade ago. REUTERS/Evrard Ngendakumana
"Censorship of anything at any time in any place on whatever pretence has always been and always will be the last resort of the boob and the bigot." ~ Eugene O'Neill