It all started when the AU threatened to send a contingent of 5,000 troops into Burundi to stem the wave of violence that began in April 2015, a proposal which Burundi’s government has angrily rejected.
The AU’s performance has implications not just for elite politics, but for ordinary African citizens, too. More than ten years after the organisation’s intervention in Burundi, where it first sought to prove itself as a peace and security actor, it now risks failing to perform properly in a reprise.
After many years of slow United Nations Security Council responses to African tragedies, especially the Rwandan genocide, African leaders began seeking alternative means of dealing with African insecurities on a self-reliant basis. The result of this was the Constitutive Act that created the AU as successor to the ineffective Organisation of African Unity (OAU), which had mostly failed to promote development and peace on the continent.
The AU is set up to be markedly different. One of its most important principles is non-indifference, as opposed to the international norm of non-intervention in the internal matters of a sovereign country. This is supposed to enable faster and more decisive action, especially when there is high risk of conflict, violence and death.
This approach to peace and security is meant to be people-centred – a departure from the old OAU, which served as a talking shop for the ruling elites. That much is reflected in the fact that the Peace and Security portfolio of the AU is its biggest in terms of both personnel and budget.
But with the Peace and Security Council still groping around for solutions to the violent clashes between Burundi’s government forces and the opposition, this seriousness is in doubt and indeed the AU’s legitimacy called into question due to its approach so far to the crisis.
Muddled from the beginning
There is currently no end to the crisis in sight. A direct result of President Pierre Nkurunziza seeking a third term in office, the term extension does not directly breach AU principles since Burundi’s Constitutional Court allowed it. But Burundi has clearly violated the spirit of the AU’s principles – and the AU’s position has been muddled from the beginning.
While it’s now at odds with the Nkurunziza government over the prospect of external military intervention, it hasn’t explicitly challenged his consolidation of power; since the violence started, its response has amounted to little more than a plethora of declarations condemning the violence.
The AU has failed to make innovative use of its moral and material capabilities to bring about peace in the country. Rather, it has embraced the simplistic argument that the crisis is a brewing genocide. This declaration however has important implications for the available options of preventing more deaths.
The spectre of civil war looms larger than ever, and Africa’s ruling elites want to avoid another one at all costs – but not any more than Burundians themselves do.
The AU now seems to be at an impasse. It may be seen as having implicitly supported Nkurunziza with its silence during the third-term debates across the continent – and the same government has now rejected the AU’s proposal for a troop deployment to establish and keep the peace.
Suddenly, the AU’s legitimacy is starting to look deeply precarious. Can it really be trusted to facilitate peace negotiations and the national dialogue necessary for a return to normality? Above all, by fumbling the crisis, the AU is failing ordinary Burundians – who’ve so far been largely left out of the story.