Two years after Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza plunged the country into turmoil, the regime shows no sights of easing up on a crackdown, which has forced hundreds of thousands to flee. In April 2015, President Nkurunziza sought a third term in office, effectively politically destabilizing the country in a move that continues to be felt today, both within and regionally. His move not only violated the country’s two term-limit, as set by the constitution, but it also violated a 2006 peace deal, which ended a dozen years of civil war. At the time, he claimed that his first term in office did not count as he was appointed after the war and not directly elected. More recently, he has suggested a possible change to Burundi’s constitution, which would let him run again in 2020.
During this period, President Nkurunziza’s ruling CND-FDD party has unleashed its feared youth wing, known as the Imbonerakure, who now reign with impunity across much of the country. According to Florent Geet of the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), “the Imbonerakure have become the spearhead of the repression, they have spread out across the country identifying and harassing the opposition.” The United Nations has estimated that at least 500 people have been killed since April 2015, with aid groups warning that as many as 2,000 people have died. The UN rights chief condemned the youth wing in April for repeatedly calling for the rape and murder of opposition supporters, stating that it amounts to a “campaign of terror.”
The Burundian government however has rejected all of the UN’s reports on the violence and calls for inquiries, as well as a Security Council resolution seeking the deployment of 228 police officers. It has also attempted to play down the security issues, with the country’s first vice president, Gasont Sindimwo stating, “the crisis is behind us, security is assured, peace has retuned to Burundi and everyone is going about their business.” This however is in stark contrast to what opposition leaders as well as NGO’s have said, noting that this claim of “peace” is the result of brutal repression, which has left hundreds dead. Witnesses have also reported that the Imbonerakure often set up roadblocks to search vehicles heading north into Rwanda or south into Tanzania, arresting scores of “suspects.” One resident of the capital, Bujumbura, has disclosed that “the entire population is terrorised because anyone can arrest you in the street and you wont be heard from again,” adding that “the fear is so strong that sometimes a father wont dare ask the security services for news of his missing son.” A UN diplomat in Geneva has also reported that “the regime in Burundi has grown more radicalized, but it has taken advantage of the growing divisions on the Security Council as well as the paralysis of the African Union, which has allowed it to act with incomplete impunity.”
The political opposition, and many elements of civil society in general, have fled the country, making it even more difficult for a solution to the political crisis. An opponent of the regime has disclosed that the opposition has also been weakened by internal divisions and “inflated egos among some of us.” Furthermore, negotiations between the regime and the CNARED, an umbrella of opposition groups, have stalled despite international pressure and financial sanctions imposed by the European Union (EU). A foreign diplomat in Bujumbura has also disclosed that the government is worried about rebel groups forming in neighbouring countries, including the Republican Forces of Burundi (Forebu), which mainly consists of deserting police and soldiers.
The East African Community is planning a summit meeting in May, with many officials seeing it as the last chance to find a diplomatic solution to a crisis that has prompted more than 400,000 people to flee the country.
West African states have a long history of sending their military forces to intervene in neighbouring countries, under the umbrella of a regional cooperation bloc.
Created in 1975, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) focuses mainly on resolving regional conflicts. The group has fifteen members, of which eight are francophone (Benin, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Ivory Coast, Mali, Niger, Senegal and Togo); five are Anglophone (The Gambia, Ghana, Liberia, Nigeria and Sierra Leone); and two are Portuguese speaking (Cape Verde and Guinea-Bissau). The organization is dominated politically and economically by regional powerhouse Nigeria.
In the case of The Gambia, where President Yahya Jammeh has refused to stand down after losing the 1 December 2016 presidential election, the bloc has thrown its support behind the new President Adama Barrow.
Here is a look at the five main foreign interventions that have been carried out since 1990:
On 11 January 2013, following a United Nations Security Council resolution, the bloc authorises the immediate deployment of an intervention force that aims to help Mali retake its Islamist-controlled north. On the same day, the French military launched Operation Serval to back the Malian army and drive back the Islamists, who are pushing south towards the capital, Bamako. The West African force comprises of 6,300 men, including 2,000 from Chad, which is not an ECOWAS member. The Chadian soldiers were on the frontline alongside French soldiers in fighting the insurgents. On 1 July 2013, the ECOWAS force is absorbed by the UN’s MINUSMA stabilization force in Mali, which is currently 13,000 strong.
West African troops deployed to Guinea-Bissau in May 2012 in order to help the political transition after one of the country’s many coups. They have since served with a mandate to protect public figures and institutions. The force consists of more than 600 police officers and paramilitary gendarmes from Burkina Faso, Nigeria, Niger, Senegal and Togo. Already in February 1999, a lightly armed ECOWAS force was deployed to the country in a bid to help resolve the crisis. The force however withdrew several months later after failing to prevent a resumption of fighting and the overthrow of the head of state.
In August 1990, ECOWAS deployed a force of several hundred men to Liberia to intervene in a civil war that had ignited eight months earlier. The ECOWAS Ceasefire Monitoring Group (ECOMOG) quickly grew to nearly 20,000 soldiers. Although it was generally described as a peacekeeping force, ECOMOG was soon called on to take more responsibilities for maintaining order. In early 1997, more than seven years after the war began, ECOMOG carried out a major disarmament operation, which effectively paved the way for multi-party elections that were held in July of that year. The last ECOMOG soldiers left Liberia in October 1999.
In August 2003, a new ECOWAS mission, known as ECOMIL, was deployed to the capital Monrovia, which had been under siege by rebels for three months. The force, which was restricted to some 3,500 soldiers, was unable to deploy across the whole of the country, resulting it in transferring its contingent to the United Nations.
ECOMOG’s Nigerian contingent drives a 1998 – 1998 military junta, the Revolutionary United Front (RUF), from Freetown and reinstates President Ahmed Tejan Kabbah. On 6 January 1999, the RUF invaded Freetown. IT was expelled two weeks later by ECOMOG troops. The West African intervention force, which has up to 11,000 men stationed in Sierra Leone, officially winds up its mission in May 2000 and is replace by the UN peacekeeping force, which was formed to guarantee the Lome peace accord of July 1999, which ended the civil war.
A 1,300-strong West African force is deployed in January 2003 after a military rebellion, which effectively cuts Ivory Coast in two. In 2004, the soldiers are integrated into the UN’s mission in the country.
On 14 May, regional and western powers gathered in Nigeria to attend talks on quelling the threat from Boko Haram.
Speaking to reporters shortly after meeting with Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari in Abuja, French President Francois Hollande stated that “impressive” gains has been made against the Islamists by greater cooperation, warning however that “this terrorist group nevertheless remains a threat.” The Nigerian leader has invited leaders from Benin, Cameroon, Chad and Niger, whose troops will make up a new regional force against Boko Haram, which has been pushed to northeastern Nigeria’s borders around Lake Chad. The 8,500-member force, which has African Union (AU) backing and which is based in Chad’s capital, N’Djamena under a Nigerian general, was supposed to have deployed July 2015. Plugging gaps and improving coordination between the armies that are currently operating largely independently is seen as vital in the remote region where borders are known to be porous. Saturday’s summit, which comes two years after a first such high-level gathering in Paris, also comes as Nigeria’s military pushes deep into Boko Haram’s Sambisa Forest stronghold after recapturing swathes of territory. While President Buhari has vowed to defeat Boko Haram before the end of his first year in office later this month, and the army portraying the Islamists as being in disarray, there have been warnings against any premature declaration of victory. Deputy US Secretary of State Anthony Blinking disclosed in Washington, which is flying surveillance drones over northeastern Nigeria from a base in northern Cameroon, that he did not see Boko Haram as defeated. However he conceded that “they have been degraded,” adding that the US was “extremely vigilant” about the connections, amidst reports of Boko Haram rebels fighting in lawless Libya and the group’s ties to al-Qaeda affiliates in the wider Sahel region. Speaking to reporters on Friday, he disclosed that “this is against something we are looking at very, very carefully because we want to cut it off.” British Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond has also warned about Boko Haram’s ties to the so-called Islamic State (IS) group, stating that progress was being made against the group with help from London, Paris and Washington. He added in his statement that “…we must maintain the momentum to win the war, and build the right conditions for post-conflict stability in the region.” With Boko Haram now on the back foot, attention has increasingly started to turn towards the plight of those that have been displaced by the ongoing insurgency. Two million Nigerians have been internally displaced and are now living in host communities or camps. The government of Borno State, which has been the worst-hit by the violence, has stated that the displaced face a “food crisis” and US $5.9 billion was needed to rebuild shattered infrastructure. United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power, who visited northeastern Nigeria and northern Cameroon last month, has indicated that 9.2 million people in the wider region were affected by the conflict.
The final communiqué disclosed that a “global approach” was required, comprising of hard and soft power in order to end the threat. Britain’s Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond characterized the fight against extremist ideology as “a generational struggle against an evil that will destroy us if we do not destroy it.” He further told the gathering that “we must sustain this fight until evil is defeated and good prevails,” and called for countries affected to win the “hears and minds of those terrorized by Boko Haram.” US Deputy Secretary of State Anthony Blinken also disclosed that respect for human rights was essential, after repeated accusations of military abuses against civilians and Bok Haram suspects. He further warned that not addressing the drivers of extremism – poverty, deprivation, lack of opportunity and education, would create “Bok Haram 2.0” even if the group were defeated militarily.
Last week, an African Union (AU) official reported that funding for a multinational force to combat Boko Haram’s deadly Islamist insurgency in West and Central Africa remains well short of its target.
In comments made shortly after a meeting in Addis Ababa to discuss funding, the African Union’s Peace and Security Council disclosed that so far, including Nigeria, Switzerland and France, have pledged about US $250 million to fund the 8,700-strong regional force. According to Orlando Bama, communications officer for the African Union’s Peace and Security Council, the US $250 million includes both previous pledges and those made during Monday’s conference. That effectively covers just over a third of the US $700 million budget that was announced for the Multi-National Joint Task Force (MNJTF) last year.
The task force, which is to be made up of regional African militaries, has yet to mobilize. Instead, national armies are tackling Boko Haram individually, however they often cannot follow the insurgency across the region’s long, porous borders. Regional armies from Cameroon, Chad, Niger and Nigeria mounted an offensive against the insurgents last year, which ousted them from many positions in northern Nigeria. The United States has also sent troops to supply intelligence and other assistance, however progress has been slow, with Boko Haram continuing to have the capabilities to launch deadly attacks both inside Nigeria, as well as in the Lake Chad Basin.
Monday’s talks come after the militant group’s latest attack, which killed at least 65 people in northeastern Nigeria on Saturday.
The African Union (AU) has abandoned its plan to deploy 5,000 peacekeepers to help restore stability to troubled Burundi. Officials have disclosed that they would instead encourage political dialogue between Burundi’s opposing sides. Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza had fiercely opposed the AU’s plans to deploy peacekeepers. His decision last April to seek a third term in office has led to ongoing violence and fears that Burundi is sliding into ethnic conflict. According to United Nations figures, at least 439 people have died and 240,000 have fled abroad since last April.
The AU could have deployed troops without Burundi’s consent, a clause in its charter effectively allows it to intervene in a member state because of grave circumstances, which include war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity, however it would have been the first time it had done so. Top AU diplomat Ibrahima Fall has disclosed that such a move would have been “unimaginable.” After the bloc’s meeting in Ethiopia, AU Peace and Security Council Chief Smail Chergui stated that “we want dialogue with the government, and the summit decided to dispatch a high-level delegation.”
The announcement comes just days after human rights group Amnesty International published satellite images last week, stating that the images were believed to be five mass graves near Burundi’s capital, where security forces were accused of killing scores of people in December 2015. A fact-finding mission by the AU has reported arbitrary killings, torture and the “closure of some civil society organizations and the media.”
Timeline of Events
- April 2015: Protests erupt after President Pierre Nkurunziza announces that he will seek a third term in office.
- May 2015: Constitutional court rules in favor of Mr Nkurunziza, amidst reports of judges being intimidated. Tens of thousands flee violence amidst protests.
- May 2015: Army officers launch a coup attempt, which ultimately fails.
- July 2015: Elections are held, with Mr Nkurunziza re-elected. The polls are disputed, with opposition leader Agathon Rwasa describing them as “a joke.”
- November 2015: Burundi government gives those opposing President Nkurunzia’s third term five days in order to surrender their weapons ahead of a promised crackdown.
- November 2015: UN warns it is less equipped to deal with violence in Burundi than it was for the Rwandan genocide.
- December 2015: 87 people killed on one day as soldiers respond to an attack on military sites in Bujumbura.
- January 2016: Amnesty International publishes satellite images which it says are believed to be mass grave located close to where December’s killings took place.