Burundi: Does non-interference policy make sense anymore?

Wednesday December 16 2015

A man begs for help from the military as he

A man begs for help from the military as he stands in a drain where he was hiding to escape from a lynch mob in Bujumbura, Burundi, on May 7, 2015. A caucus of Kenyan MPs, known as Friends of Burundi, has accused leaders from East Africa of doing little to help end the bloodshed in Burundi. AFP PHOTO | AYMERIC VINCENOT 

By AGGREY MUTAMBO
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Burundi may be one of Africa’s smallest inland nations, but it now faces a large problem: conflict.

On Wednesday, the UN warned the violence coupled with funding cuts to the central African nation would cripple the country further.

“Burundi is facing a critical crossroads. The levels of displacement and food insecurity are already concerning, but we risk another full-blown humanitarian crisis without urgent progress on the political front,” warned John Ging, the Emergency Director of the Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The revelations follow renewed violence in Burundi’s capital Bujumbura which is said to have led to about 100 deaths.

Bujumbura argued ‘terrorists’ attacked military camps and were killed. But the violence dates back to April when current President Pierre Nkurunziza was allowed by his party, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) to vie for a controversial third term.

The decision led to protests and even an attempted coup, but President Nkurunziza stood firm to contest in a poll where six opponents pulled out citing intimidation.

The UN estimates that more than 340 people have been killed since, 220,000 more have fled the country and another 15,000 people have been displaced within Burundi.  

KENYA'S SAFE POSITION

Yet the signs were always on the wall. So why have Burundi’s neighbours taken too long to respond?

Sometime in May this year, the Nation inquired from the Kenyan government what it would do to avert looming violence in Burundi. The response by Foreign Affairs PS Karanja Kibicho’s was diplomatic.

“Burundi is a sovereign country and what they decide at elections is what we will support. The international community must support the electoral body so that elections are free, fair and transparent.” he argued.

“Of course the issue of whether Mr Nkurunziza should vie or not is already before the Court  and we will support whatever decision the (Constitutional) Court comes up with. We support a peaceful process.”

The Constitutional Court later upheld Nkurunziza’s candidature. Kenya had donated 150 laptops and $6,000 to the Burundi National Electoral Commission. Elections were later held, but six candidates pulled out of the race citing intimidation.

The United States and the European Union charged that the elections would be invalid and went ahead to withdraw observers. (This is also the first election in history where the African Union declined to send observers too).

Last week, the United States, which disapproved of the polls warned it would impose further sanctions on those involved in the violence.

“The United States is deeply alarmed by the attacks that occurred overnight and continue in Bujumbura. We condemn this violence in the strongest possible terms, and we call on all sides to refrain immediately from violence,” said John Kirby, the State Department spokesman.

“The United States reiterates its readiness to pursue additional sanctions against individuals responsible for, or, complicit in actions or policies that threaten Burundi’s peace, security, or stability.”

Kenya’s argument was based on an age-old practice in international relations provided by the UN Charter that countries should “refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state.” But does that principle hold?

The said Charter only describes the use of force or dictatorial or coercive actions but is silent on other actions that may influence the politics of another country.

LESSONS FROM BUYOYA

In May, East African Community leaders gathering in Dar es Salaam were quick to condemn a coup attempt meant to remove Nkurunziza. In a country that has had two presidents and a prime minister assassinated and thousands of people killed, the EAC announced it would not accept the overthrow.

The African Union said it was concerned, refused to use the word coup, and instead warned against any “unconstitutional change of governments.” The UN issued a similar condemnation.

But the current situation will affect EAC members even if they choose to look the other way. It is cheaper to sue for peace than to host refugees.

For, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya and Rwanda, the warning by the UN agencies is scarier because Burundi is not only small in size but in economy. It is the poorest of the EAC member states, ranked 184 out of 187 on the UN Human Development Index. More than half of its budget (51 per cent) is funded by donors.

It is estimated that eight in every ten families live below a dollar a day. Since the controversial polls in June, some donors stopped providing aid, crushing basic services such as free public health care.

Burundi has been here before. During Burundi’s previous coup in 1996, Pierre Buyoya who had engineered a takeover was compelled into talks by then Kenya’s President Daniel Moi, DR Congo’s Mobutu Seseko, Ethiopia’s PM Meles Zenawi, Zambia’s Frederick Chiluba, Rwanda’s Pasteur Bizimungu and Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni after they unusually imposed economic restrictions on Burundi.

The conditions are different given Nkurunziza was ‘voted’ in. But the argument that we will look on because we don’t want to interfere in other people’s internal affairs is inexcusable.