The African Union Peace and Security Council resolved to send 5,000 peacekeepers to Burundi to stem the sporadic killings by armed groups and extrajudicial executions by government soldiers.
At a special meeting on December 17, the Council decided to deploy peacekeepers whose mandate includes the protection of civilians with a strong message that Africa will not allow another genocide on its soil.
The Commissioner for Peace and Security, Smail Chergui, noted that a very clear message that came out of the PSC meeting was that the killings in Burundi must stop immediately.
The decision to send troops was based on the report of a fact finding mission by the African Commission on Human and People’s Rights sent to Burundi by the AU from December 7 to 13, which revealed cases of arbitrary and extrajudicial killings, targeted assassinations as well as arrests, detentions and torture.
The mission concluded that the killings constitute violations and abuses within the framework of the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights as well as such relevant international humanitarian laws, after talking to civil society, media, members of the diplomatic corps, international organisations and humanitarian organisations.
Chairperson of the AU Commission Dr Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma had earlier in the week said that reports on the summary execution of a number of people demonstrated the risk of generalised violence with devastating consequences both for the country and the region.
The killings took a turn for the worse on December 11, when armed groups attacked two barracks in the capital Bujumbura, with human- rights activists accusing the government security forces of extra-judicial killings during the subsequent confrontations.
“I saw many young men being forced to get on a lorry and others shot in the head yet they were unarmed,” said an eyewitness in Nyakabiga, a suburb in Bujumbura.
According to Burundi police spokesman Pierre Nkurikiye, at least 87 people were killed during the battle between an armed group and the security forces on December 11 — four policemen, four soldiers and 79 of the armed raiders lost their lives.
The UN Secretary-General had on December 9 warned that Burundi was on the brink of civil war and he despatched his Special Adviser Jamal Benomar to travel to the region to press the AU and neighbouring countries to urgently start a national dialogue involving all stakeholders.
Members of the AU Security Council led by the director of the Peace and Security Department, El-Ghassim Wane, raised the issue of an urgent need for action to stop the killings in Burundi.
At the same meeting in Addis Ababa, the Eastern African Standby Force (EASF), also updated the Council on its contingency plans for possible deployment to Burundi.
In Nairobi, the director of EASF, Issimail Chanfi, told The EastAfrican that his group participated in the briefing but it will be up to the AU leadership to decide whether to use EASF alone or in conjunction with other troops from the continent.
“We demonstrated our readiness at the meeting and we are ready to move anywhere in Africa, not just Burundi,” said Mr Chanfi.
According to the AU structures, once a regional standby force receives orders from the Peace and Security Council to deploy, they are supposed to be forward to the council of Ministers of Defence, which must subsequently be approved by the Heads of States Summit from the concerned region.
But to avoid the long process, Mr Chanfi said that there are plans to create a Crisis Response Mechanism that will comprise the chair of the AU summit, the deputy and the rapporteur who can consult rapidly with the AU Commission for quicker action.
EASF has been designed to respond to diverse security situations ranging from 14 days in cases of ongoing genocide or within 30 days when there is escalation of violence, destruction of property and displacement of the population.
But as the AU and the UN were scrambling to deploy peacekeepers to Burundi, the UK Minister for Africa, James Duddridge, said that military intervention right now is like “jumping from A to Z,” asking East African leaders to find a viable solution through dialogue.
“The next step is to get everybody around the table,” he told a press conference in Kigali on Wednesday.
However, the UK’s latest stance contradicts what the UN Security Council said in October, when they proposed to “react quickly” and move in with troops in case “there is need.”
Mr Duddridge said that his government will support any resolution agreed upon through dialogue, be it a compromise to end the violence or a deal to usher in power-sharing between Pierre Nkurunziza’s government and those opposed to his rule.
“What is clear is that Burundi and the president are heading to a bad place… but there is a plan. It is up to the participants in the dialogue to foster a greater democracy for Burundi in the short, medium and long term,” he said.
“I encourage everyone to get around the table and not rule anything out. There is no real alternative; the future is not bright for Burundi on its current trajectory.”
He also strongly suggested that discussions should be held outside of Burundi despite President Nkurunziza’s disapproval, arguing that some key participants are “scared to go back to Burundi” — including opposition leaders and members of Nkurunziza’s party who fled.