In February 2016, the African Union (AU) announced its decision not to send an intervention force into Burundi without the consent of the country’s government. What were its reasons for this decision?

The AU’s first peacekeeping operation in Burundi was the African Mission in Burundi (AMIB) in 2003. Against all odds, AMIB succeeded in bringing peace to the country and paved the way for its transition to democracy. The circumstances that culminated in this success, however, are largely lacking in 2016. The more recent situation has left the AU with no viable option in the short term other than to refrain from a second peace intervention in Burundi, despite the escalating violence there.

A major factor in the success of peace interventions and peacebuilding is the cooperation of a state’s political elite.1Adekeye Adebajo, UN Peacekeeping in Africa: From the Suez Crisis to the Sudan Conflicts (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2011). For example, the failure of the AU-UN joint peace operation in Sudan’s Darfur region is attributable mainly to the non-cooperation of the Sudanese government. In contrast, the AU peacekeeping mission in Burundi in 2003 benefited from cooperation by Burundi’s political elite.2Howard Wolpe, Making Peace after Genocide: Anatomy of the Burundi Process (Washington DC: United States Institute of Peace, 2011), 69–70; Gustavo de Carvalho and Liezelle Kumalo, “The Uncertain Future of Peacebuilding in Burundi,” Institute for Security Studies, Pretoria, July 9, 2014,, accessed March 6, 2016. In recent months, Burundi’s president Pierre Nkurunziza has clearly expressed opposition to the deployment of AU military forces on Burundian soil. Although Burundi may be in crisis, the government and security forces still function, and they remain loyal to the president. Therefore, AU intervention in Burundi today without the consent of Nkurunziza’s government will likely complicate the crisis.

The AU’s peacekeeping intervention in 2003 was the product of negotiations which commenced in 1995, headed first by Tanzania’s former president Julius Nyerere and later by South Africa’s former president Nelson Mandela. These negotiations involved the Burundian government, other domestic political elite, and heads of states in the region. The situation today, however, is quite different. Had the AU intervened back in December 2015 when it first announced its desire to deploy peacekeepers under the African Prevention and Protection Mission (MAPROBU), it would have risked stumbling into a conflict without approval by the Burundian government and without a clear or coherent strategy. Until such negotiations are embarked on, and without a concrete agreement between the AU and the Burundian government, the political costs of deploying AU peacekeepers will likely be heavy and counterproductive.

Another important factor behind the AU’s decision not to send an intervention force into Burundi this year was economic. AMIB was successful largely because of the lead role played by South Africa, which was the major contributor of peacekeepers and materials to the mission.3Emma Svensson, “The African Mission in Burundi: Lessons Learned from the African Union’s First Peace Operation,” FOI Report No. 2561 SE, Swedish Defence Research Agency, 2008, 11, This time around, however, neither South Africa nor any other member state of the AU appears to be in a position to shoulder the burden of another peace operation. The worsening finances of AU member states and challenges facing the world’s major powers suggest that no one is willing to step up to foot the bill for another intervention in Burundi.

Presently, the AU has its hands full in addressing peacekeeping and peacebuilding challenges elsewhere on the continent. Although the organization has done a great job in Somalia, Al-Shabaab has shown it still has the capacity to wreak havoc in the region. To meet these challenges and also help in the fight against extremist groups, including Al-Shabaab, the AU needs all the muscle and cooperation it can muster. Forcing peacekeepers into Burundi would only risk a recall by Nkurunziza of his country’s 5,432 troops from the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM). Losing its second largest contingent would have a devastating impact on AMISOM—one the AU cannot afford to have happen. The AU is therefore unlikely to sacrifice the gains made so far in Somalia for an operation in Burundi where the odds are stacked against it.

Finally, the success of the 2003 intervention was partly facilitated by the Burundian population, which had grown war weary after a decade of armed conflict and desperately sought peace. Now, after thirteen years of respite, memories of unaddressed grievances and failed reconciliation have fueled a thirst for political violence. Some experts suggest peacekeepers should not be deployed in such situations unless the warring factions are willing to reach a settlement.4Marrack Goulden, Peacemonger (London: John Murray, 2002); Jean-Marie Guehenno, interview transcript, Commission on Smart Power, Centre for Strategic Studies, March 27, 2008. This school of thought suggests parties to a conflict are often willing to settle when they have reached a hurting stalemate—that is, the realization neither group can win.5William I. Zartman, Cowardly Lions: Missed Opportunities to Prevent Deadly Conflict and State Collapse (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2005). Burundi’s political elite may not be ready for compromise until the country has reached this point. The AU apparently has chosen the better option of pressing for negotiations among the warring factions and elites to enable them to see reason, so they may reach an amicable settlement of their differences.

Sending peacekeepers into Burundi at this point in the crisis would only result in a protracted peacekeeping mission, given Nkurunziza’s disapproval of AU boots in Burundi and the AU’s own lack of financial resources. Since the AU itself is made up of member states who may have different perspectives on the Burundi crisis, the most viable option appears to be that of building the consensus necessary to address the crisis effectively and pressure the Burundi elite to reach a peaceful settlement, while also mobilizing international partners to help halt any further escalation into a full-blown civil war. So far, the AU has acted wisely in not resorting to forceful intervention.

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