AU must act on Burundi

A Burundian worker from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission holds the skull of an unidentified person at a mass grave in the Bukirasazi hill in Karusi Province

The UN has sounded the alarm on Burundi two months before its May elections, but it is unclear whether anyone is listening. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi gave a verbal report to the UN Human Rights Council on Monday warning that the economic, political and security situation in Burundi continues to worsen, and that an environment for free and fair elections does not exist, unless drastic and immediate measures are taken. The Government of Burundi has become increasingly repressive, intolerant of dissent, and closed to the outside world. Investigators say that human rights violations in the country could amount to crimes against humanity.

The Commissioners expressed particular concern about the Imbonerakure – the youth league linked to the ruling party which continues to carry out killings, disappearances, detention, torture and rape, particularly of opposition members and politicians, and their families. The Commission has reported that there is an intention and motive to resort to violence. 

The Commissioners are appealing to the international community – the AU, UN Security Council, and regional organisations to join forces to get  Burundi to reopen the democratic and political space, which is a requirement for holding free and fair elections. The Commission delivered their presentation to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva on Monday saying that the eight risk factors common to criminal activities (developed in 2014 by the UN Special Advisors on the Prevention of Genocide) applied in Burundi in 2019 and are still present, some more marked than before. 

The opposition are restricted and intimidated and not able to campaign freely. The opposition have also not been given the opportunity to check the voters list to ensure its credibility. The UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi does not consider Burundi’s Independent Electoral Commission to be independent.

According to the Commission there is an increase in hate speech with political and ethnic dimensions on social media, and there is no action taken to curb it by the authorities. Such an environment is conducive to the perpetuation of gross human rights violations. There is also pervasive media censorship with all but one of the independent media outlets banned. Iwacu, being the last independent media organisation, had four of its journalists imprisoned in January. 

Despite the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi having ventilated its findings this week and attempted to arouse the concern of the international community, its findings have been met with silence. This could be interpreted as indifference. There has been no reaction from the African Union as the continental body responsible for the maintenance of peace and security on the continent. 

One of the three Commissioners on the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, Lucy Asuagbor, has emphasized that South Africa could play an important role as the guarantor of the Arusha Accords, and as Chair of the AU. Asuagbor also highlights the fact that South Africa is Chair of the Permanent Representative Council at the AU in Addis Ababa, made up of the African Ambassadors accredited to the AU. Asuagbor believes that South Africa should be seized with this issue at the AU in order to ensure that there is a level playing field prior to the elections in Burundi, and that independent AU election observers are deployed. 

The problem of finding an African solution to the crisis in Burundi is that the East African Community has been charged with leading the process, and due to a variety of factors its initiatives have failed. This is largely due to the refusal on the part of the Government of Burundi to cooperate and dialogue with the opposition, but also due to other agendas at play in the region. The UN had recommended in 2017 that the AU take back the lead on finding a solution to the crisis in Burundi, which has not happened as yet. 

In July 2015 the AU had refused to send an election observer mission to Burundi as the consensus was that the conditions for a free and fair election did not exist. At the time the AU took a strong stand on Burundi and the AU Peace and Security Council met monthly on the situation and issued numerous communiques and statements, that ratcheted up pressure on the Government of Burundi. 

The situation then, which is not dissimilar from the conditions that exist today, was of such concern that the AU had authorised a 5,000 strong Protection Force (MAPROBU), but African leaders failed to endorse it. This failure exposed a rift between an interventionist AU Commission and member states that did not want to see the AU intervening on issues of human rights and democracy. 

Now is the chance for the AU to show that its overriding ambition to prevent and resolve conflicts on the continent does in fact match its capabilities.

Shannon Ebrahim is the Foreign Editor for the Independent Media Group.