The African Union has shelved a proposal to deploy 5,000 peacekeeping troops to contain an ongoing crisis in Burundi. AU Commissioner for Peace and Security, Smail Chergui, said that no stabilization force would be deployed without the consent of Burundi's government. A high-level delegation will be sent to the capital, Bujumbura, instead to negotiate a solution acceptable to President Pierre Nkurunziza.
"We want dialogue with the government of Burundi. The assembly has decided to send a high-level delegation to the country so they hold a dialogue," said Chergui at a press conference at the 26th AU summit in the Ethiopian capital, Addis Ababa. The timing and composition of the delegation is yet to be determined.
The conflict in the East African nation was among the topics topping the agenda at this year's AU summit, attended by African leaders and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. Burundi plunged into disarray after President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for a third term last year, a move in violation of term limits enshrined in the country's constitution. The conflict has claimed more than 400 lives, and has forced 230,000 people from their homes.
AU softens position amid lack of agreement
The decision to engage Burundi in dialogue marks a turn in the AU's stance on the conflict. In December last year, the AU announced it would send peacekeeping troops with or without the government's permission, for the first time invoking Article 4h of its Constitutive Act, which allows intervention against the will of a member state to avert war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.
Nkurunziza's government has strongly opposed the deployment of peacekeepers, calling it an "invasion force." Analysts said that there wasn't enough support among other African heads of state to deploy the force against Burundi's will, amid fears that such a decision could set a precedent in an organization known for its culture of non-intervention. A two-thirds majority by the General Assembly would have been required to pass the proposal.
"There is just no consensus anymore, even in the Peace and Security Council," said Stephanie Wolters, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies. "We have seen a toning down of the commentary by the envoys on what this force will do. They are now positioning it as something that will help the Burundian government to establish stability."
No progress on human rights monitors
Now that the AU is taking a less confrontational stance, observers say Nkurunziza might feel emboldened, with the country threatening to spiral into further violence. "If the AU summit doesn't sanction Burundi in some way, the Burundians will walk away feeling they were successful and that the fraternity of heads of state is on their side," said Wolters.
Nkurunziza's government stands accused of grave human rights abuses, including extrajudicial killings, mass arrests and torture. Given the political deadlock over the deployment of troops, the international community had hoped AU leaders would at least agree on the deployment of additional human rights monitors.
"We think one of the most urgent needs is to get eyes and ears on the ground, credible international AU monitors. The government has systematically prevented that kind of monitoring on the ground," said US Special Envoy for the Great Lakes region Thomas Perriello.
However, no agreement on the deployment of additional human rights observers or on the formalization of the mandate of those on the ground was made in the course of the summit.
South Sudan peace on hold
The implementation of South Sudan's peace deal, signed in August, also featured at the top of the summit's agenda. Earlier this month, President Salva Kiir's government and Riek Machar's opposition failed to form a transitional government due to a deadlock over Kiir's controversial decision to redraw South Sudan's state boundaries. The impasse constitutes just one of many setbacks in the fragile peace process.
Both Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi and Salva Kiir of South Sudan didn't attend the AU Summit, which dampened expectations that progress would be made to end the continent's main crises.
The AU has long attempted to put its motto "African solutions to African problems" into practice by taking the lead in addressing the challenges on its continent. In his closing remarks, newly elected AU chairman and president of Chad, Idriss Deby, underlined the need to strengthen the organization's capacity. "The African Union should be at the forefront to help our countries that are in crisis but also to promote peace, development and integration," Deby said.