A months-long, regional effort to send African Union peacekeepers into Burundi, with or without the government's permission, took a hit over the weekend, raising fears that violence in the East African country might escalate without an international force to calm the situation. Several member states of the African Union said they would not support the measure without President Pierre Nkurunziza and his government on board.
As the AU gathered in Ethiopia over the last week for its annual summit, Nkurunziza stood his ground and maintained that his country would not accept a proposal by the regional body to deploy 5,000 troops to his nation. Countries from Gambia to South Africa also expressed their disagreement with the proposal, pushing the AU's Peace and Security Council to go back to the drawing board.
The AU said it now plans to send a team to Burundi to try to convince the government to accept the peacekeeping force that it had rejected, officially backing away from an earlier plan to send them regardless. This move, proposed back in December as concern grew over the risk of civil war, would have invoked a never-before-used article of the body's charter allowing intervention in a member state without support of its government.
"We want dialogue with the government of Burundi," AU Commissioner for Peace and Security Smail Chergui said, as the summit drew to a close on Sunday. According to Chergui, African leaders had instead "decided to send a high-level delegation to that country so that they hold dialogue with the government on … the deployment of the force."
Gambian President Yahya Jammeh was one of the more vocal leaders against the idea, saying some states would only act with Burundi's consent. South Africa and Tanzania also came out strong against the proposal. The two countries helped negotiate the 2005 peace deal that ended Burundi's decade-long civil war, a deal which allowed Nkurunziza to rise to power.
Concerns that the provision could be used as precedent, letting the AU send troops into other countries without consent, were cited as a likely reason some leaders may have backed away from the Burundi plan.
The failure of the peacekeeping proposal comes at a time of increasing worry about the country's stability and risk of increased violence. Last week, Amnesty International reported allegations of mass graves, while reports of a growing number of arrests and disappearances have begun to emerge.
More than 400 people have been killed in the country since unrest began last April after Nkurunziza announced controversial plans to seek a third term in office. Opponents argued this violated the two-term limit set out in the constitution, based on the 2005 Arusha peace accords that ended the civil war. A national court ultimately validated the 52-year-old former rebel leader's decision, deciding he had been appointed to the presidency during his first term, not elected.
In the months between Nkurunziza's decision to run and elections in July, protesters clashed with both police and government supporters. Former army officials attempted, and failed, to carry out a coup in May. After Nkurunziza secured victory at the polls, the unrest shifted to politically targeted killings on both sides, disappearances, and government sweeps of suspected rebel hideouts. Meanwhile, more than 240,000 people have fled the country to nearby states including Tanzania and Rwanda.
Concern heightened in the international community by December, particularly after a rebel attack on military bases in the capital Bujumbura sparked a firefight with government forces. Bodies were found on the streets of the city the next morning, and authorities reported nearly 80 dead. In the weeks that followed United Nations officials urged swift action in the face of civil war risk, while the African Union pushed forward its peacekeeping proposal.
The UN's assistant secretary general for human rights, Ivan Simonovic, urged the African Union to increase the human rights monitoring presence in Burundi in the event that it does not dispatch peacekeepers, according to Reuters.
Chergui told Reuters, however, that it was too early to know whether the AU would add human rights monitors. "We are sending a high-level delegation so we are hoping that we will achieve an agreement with the government on everything,"he said.
While regional leaders move forward with attempts to intervene in the crisis, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon emphasized the need for action. The official encouraged Burundi's government to listen and engage in dialogue.
"The longer this situation continues, the more people will be killed and affected," he said in Addis Ababa. "We cannot wait any longer, that is why it is a matter of urgency, that I am urging African leaders to act in one voice."
Reuters contributed to this report.