As African Union mulls Burundi sanctions, controvery swirls

Violence continues in Bujumbura, Burundi's capital, despite talk of peace
Violence continues in Bujumbura, Burundi's capital, despite talk of peace Reuters/Jean Pierre Aime Harerimana

The African Union has threatened to sanction Burundi's rival factions if they fail to attend peace talks scheduled to open on Wednesday in Arusha, Tanzania. Although the AU has yet to provide details, the possible sanctions are generating controversy – even among Burundian activists.


“We need to take sanctions immediately so [President Pierre Nkurunziza] can feel there is no other option,” says Pacelli Ndikumana, a pro-opposition lawyer. “Otherwise he will never accept negotiations.”

Some in the pro-sanctions camp would like other international and regional bodies to target Burundi with comprehensive sanctions, arguing that an economic embargo would be even more effective.

Burundi’s neighbours, including Uganda, Tanzania and Rwanda, adopted an economic embargo in 1996 when former President Pierre Buyoya took power in a military coup, and lawyer Ndikumana believes those countries should take similar measures in light of Nkurunziza’s controversial re-election.

“They have to do the same now because there has been a coup, not a military but a civil coup, against the constitution,” Ndikumana said in a phone interview from London. “The sanctions were extremely effective because they put the whole country in difficult circumstances – to the point that immediately Buyoya agreed to negotiate with the armed opposition.”

Comprehensive sanctions like an economic embargo could affect Burundi’s population at large. But Ndikumana believes they are nonetheless in order.

“By taking drastic measures against the country the population would obviously suffer, but the ruling party and the political leaders would suffer even more,” he remarked.

Not everyone agrees sanctions, whether selective or comprehensive, are a good idea.

Coercing people into attending peace talks is shortsighted, according to Burundian rights lawyer Audace Gatavu.

“This at the end of the day will not [contribute to] a genuine peace process and peace agreement,” he said in a phone interview from the US, explaining that it is easier to force people to come to a bargaining table than to implement peace.

The Burundi dialogue has been fraught with tension from the start.

The opposition delegates include members of CNARED, a coalition that presents itself as upholding the Arusha peace agreement that ended more than a decade of civil war in 2006.

The Burundian government has so far refused to hold direct talks with CNARED, calling it a "terrorist organisation" and accusing it of being behind a failed coup in May as well as ongoing attacks on security forces.

CNARED has said it cannot negotiate with the government before “an immediate end to the massacres” comes into effect.

The AU has agreed to send to Burundi a peacekeeping force known as Maprobu, its French acronym.

Hundreds of people have been killed in Burundi since April, when opponents of Nkurunziza accused him of seeking to hang on to power unconstitutionally by seeking a third term in office.

The unrest continues with gunfire ringing out in Bujumbura by night and corpses appearing on the streets by day.

Erastus Mwencha, deputy chairman of the African Union Commission, said Monday that the AU would continue to press for a troop deployment. “The African Union and international community cannot sit by and watch genocide if it is going to develop," he said.

But Nkurunziza on Wednesday reacted angrily at the suggestion AU troops could enter Burundi. "Everybody should respect the borders of Burundi,” he said in a press conference broadcast on radio. “If the troops are in violation of this decision, they will have attacked Burundi, and each Burundian must stand up to fight them."

The East Africa Community regional bloc has warned that the violence may spiral out of control.

“Either the leaders and people of Burundi will invest in the peace, security, stability and prosperity that they so richly deserve, or with their eyes firmly fixed on the rear driving mirror they will continue to hurtle towards violence, political intolerance and possible civil war," EAC secretary general Richard Sezibera said at the start of the talks in Kampala.

Follow Michel Arseneault on Twitter @miko75011

Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morning