Burundi Crisis Key Issue For African Union Summit – Analysis


By Alfredo Tjiurimo Hengari*

A few weeks ago, forces loyal to President Pierre Nkurunziza stymied a coup d’état in Burundi. A few months earlier, last October to be precise, the exact opposite occurred when an army officer in Burkina Faso, Lt Col. Isaac Zida, dislodged in a bloodless coup d’état West Africa’s former strong-man and president of that country, Blaise Compaoré.

Following suspension from the African Union (AU) and pressure from the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), Zida has morphed into civilian form as Prime Minister, with Burkina Faso returning to ‘civilian rule’ a month later.

Burundi for its part is in the throes of heightened political uncertainty with legislative and presidential elections in June 2015 remaining more than doubtful. After a bloody civil war and a peace process that ushered the country into a democratic state-building exercise from 2004, Burundi is now on the verge of full-scale conflict. These developments are worrying after the considerable investments in peace and post-conflict-reconstruction made by the United Nations, the Nordic countries and South Africa over the past 15 years.

But such political crises – and the violence that accompanies them – can be averted by the international community. What is more, the AU is well positioned to deal with these new forms of tension and violence.

The events in Burundi and Burkina Faso have one disturbing element in common: attempts by sitting heads of states to extend their stay in power by amending constitutions (or re-interpreting them). Similarly, in Togo although the crisis did not escalate, Faure Eyadema’s election to a third term as president in April this year illustrated the palpable tensions that accompany a longer stay in power. This ought to be a source of concern for the AU. If the mooted constitutional amendments in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Benin and the Republic of Congo are factored into the political horizon, instability becomes a real but unattractive eventuality in these countries.

What is to be done to stem the tide of constitutional amendments and stays in office beyond two terms? The causal effects between constitutional amendments and extended stays in power on the one hand, and political tensions and instability on the other is becoming widespread. More worryingly, these are now undermining neighbouring countries, increasing the potential for regional insecurity. This should be of concern to Regional Economic Communities (RECs) where peace and state building are in their infancy after years of war, bad governance and political instability.

With overwhelming evidence suggesting an upward trend in tensions in these countries, it is urgent for the AU to open up the discussion on term extensions and the threat they pose to fragile state-building and democratic governance in Africa. The still vivid events in Burundi, and the initiative in Dar es Salam by the EAC plus South Africa in averting a full-scale crisis, provides a framework to cascade this pressing issue to the June 2015 AU Summit agenda in South Africa.

After all, the twin worries of war and instability, which at this point ought to be collectively shared by virtue of their devastating effects, should create the space for summit to seriously consider a debate that locates this issue in the preventive diplomacy arsenal of the AU. It should be emphasised that seeking to deal with crises that emanate from extended stays in office is a misguided effort that deflects attention from what RECs and the AU should really be focusing on at this point – development.

One of the key pillars of the AU preventive diplomacy is to avert war and conflict before it rears its ugly head. It is not sufficient to share the burden of conflict mediation, as the EAC plus South Africa is doing on Burundi, without getting to the root cause of the problem – constitutional amendments and extended stays in power. These should be discouraged in Africa where democratic institutions are still on shaky ground.

In what is the strongest rebuttal of this trend, President Jacob Zuma at the Peace and Security Council (PSC) in January this year raised concerns about what he termed ‘a worrying trend of constitutional amendments aimed at extending the mandates of incumbent Heads of State and Government which has led to a number of tensions on the continent’. With such a strong statement from a key consolidating democracy, the summit will not be starting on a blank page.

To ignore this trend is no longer an option, and the AU and South Africa can pursue one or two of three options.

First, in order to send a strong signal, it would be even more opportune for President Jacob Zuma’s statement at the summit to echo his position at the PSC January meeting. South Africa has already argued against the trend. But what is required now is to build up support in a broader constituency.

The second option, which could prove far more problematic, is for the AU Commission Chairperson, Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma to use her statement to draw the link between conflict and constitutional amendments in broad terms, including their impact on development and regional security.

The third option, which is less onerous, is for the AU Commission to channel a position paper through Early-Warning and preventive diplomacy instruments, which could be ready for the January 2016 Summit. This would require far more substantive consultations and discussions through existing instruments such as the PSC, the AU Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance, and including the AU Constitutive Act.

Without doubt, strong sovereignty norms and the domestic framing of constitutional amendments provide the AU Commission and South Africa with little wiggle-room to convince their peers. But the political crisis in Burundi is one too many. After all, Aspiration 4 of the AU’s ‘Agenda 2063: The Future We Want’, whose implementation plan will be up for discussion at the June summit, seeks to silence the guns by 2020.

This is a noble precondition for the more pressing task of economic development. But it could prove elusive if the AU does not frame and proactively deal with constitutional amendments for third and fourth terms as new forms generating instability, violence and regional insecurity.

*Dr Tjiurimo Hengari is a senior fellow in the Foreign Policy Programme at the South African Institute of International Affairs. A version of this article was first published in Business Day.


The South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) has a long and proud record as South Africa’s premier research institute on international issues. It is an independent, non-government think-tank whose purpose is to encourage wider and more informed awareness of the importance of international affairs. It is both a centre for research excellence and a home for stimulating public debate.

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