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Burundi rejects AU's troop pullout decision

February 21, 2019

For the 5,400 Burundian soldiers fighting in Somalia, it's time to go home, the African Union says. Burundi's President Nkurunziza disagrees and is fighting the decision.

A group of Burundian soldiers on parade
Image: Getty Images/AFP/M. Abdiwahab

Burundi and Somalia have called for an emergency summit to discuss the pullout of 1,000 Burundian troops from the African Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) before the end of the month. The African Union (AU) had announced in 2017 that the Burundian soldiers must leave by the end of February. The force is to be gradually scaled back as Somalia's armed forces are trained to replace them.

The decision did not please either Burundi or Somalia, according to Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza. Burundi's participation in AMISOM  is an important source of foreign currency in the country - every quarter, the AU pays around 18 million US dollars (€15.7 million) as compensation for the soldiers. AMISOM pays soldiers $1,028 each per month, $200 are deducted by their respective governments for administrative costs.

'Burundians not pleased'

Burundi has seen donor funding cut since a political crisis broke out in 2015 when President Nkurunziza decided to run for a third, unconstitutional term. His decision sparked a wave of opposition and violent repression which led to a conflict that shows little sign of resolution. Over 400,000 Burundians have fled the country.

Since December 2007, Burundi has been receiving large sums of money deducted from the salaries of six rotating battalions comprising about 5,500 troops deployed to fight al-Shabab militants in Somalia. After meeting with Somali president Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed, Nkurunziza said the decision to withdraw Burundian troops was not welcomed. "We discussed the role of Burundian troops in Somalia; how they work hard to stabilize that country. The decision taken by the African Union's Peace and Security Commission didn't please Burundian people." The two countries are now calling for an urgent summit of troop-contributing countries in Somalia, in the hope that the decision might be reconsidered "for the benefit of all," Nkurunziza said.

Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza
Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza feels punished by the AU's decisionImage: Reuters/E. Ngendakumana

Up to 1,000 Burundian soldiers killed

Somali President Mohamed Abdullahi Mohamed said he admired the bravery of the Burundi national defense force. "I thank the government and people of this great nation for your pan-Africanism to help your fellow African brothers and sisters in Somalia. Since 2007, Burundi soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice, and I assure the people of Burundi, your soldiers' sacrifice will not go in vain," he said.  Burundi has the second-largest contingent in AMISOM with 5,400 troops, after Uganda, which has 6,200 men. Other contributors are Djibouti, Kenya and Ethiopia whose troops are deployed in six sectors covering south and central Somalia. In total, the AU has a 21,500-strong force to support Somalia's government and fight al-Shabaab jihadists who are held responsible for a number of attacks. Burundi is estimated to have lost between 800 and 1,000 soldiers in the conflict.

The Somali president paid tribute to the AMISOM troops in his country, saying: "Burundi and other African troop-contributing countries in Somalia will be part of our national history, and a history that all Africans will be proud of, a history where we can find African solutions to African problems." Africa, he said, should understand that the continent's future is interdependent. "Our cooperation will not be limited in the field of security, but we need to explore economic cooperation between our two nations."

Money for fidelity

Somali soldiers marching
Somali soldiers have conducted raids and launched drone strikes on al-Shabab training camps throughout the countryImage: Getty Images/AFP/M. Abdiwahab

Teddy Mazina, a Burundian human rights activist and journalist, thinks the pullout is justified. "It has been a long time since those soldiers have been there. People think that the government is keeping the troops only there for business, not for aid. I think the government wants to keep the troops in Somalia because they need that money until the additional aid is back," he said in an interview with DW, referring to the funding cut. He sees the presence of the troops in Somalia as the last regular income for the Burundian government, reason enough for it to reject the pullout. "They've been asking why they've been chosen. And they feel like it is a punishment. It is the first time we hear a country say: I do not want to pull out," he said.

Mazina is sure that there is more to the AU's decision to take this step than just the Somali army stepping in. In his opinion, the call to remove the troops from Somalia has something to do with the Nkurunziza government's behavior inside its own country. "Burundi has so many problems and has created so many enemies for itself. The government is internationally isolated [...] and I think that is why the AU chose Burundi," Mazina said. After the national crisis started in 2015, the country's main problem would have been where to find the money to maintain its economy, but as aid from the international community was then cut, Burundi started to cooperate with the government of Somalia.

The withdrawal will have serious consequences for Burundi, Mazina says: "First it is a defeat for the government, for what they say and promise every day. And secondly, it will affect the economy and the economy of the government itself. People are already in a very bad economic situation, it won't change anything for them. But for the government itself it will, because they use that money to buy people's fidelity." Burundians would feel that the government is securing its domination with the money coming from the troops in Somalia, he says. "The government is using that money for the wrong purpose." For that reason, he considers the troop withdrawal to be a good step. For Somalia, things should not change, since "Somalia is not paying, the money comes from the AU. And there will still be other troops in the country when it comes to security."

Apollinaire Niyirora contributed to this article

DW - Silja Fröhlich
Silja Fröhlich is a German journalist and radio host.