African Union Diplomacy Fails to Take off in Burundi. Literally and Metaphorically

South African President Jacob Zuma and four other heads of state from Ethiopia, Senegal, Gabon and Mauritania joined together in a high-level African Union delegation and spent February 25th and 26th in Burundi pressuring the current President, Pierre Nkurunziza, to lift the country out of its tailspin.

Alas, this latest diplomatic intervention did not exactly go as planned.


The African Union delegation landed with a central objective: “to consult with all the important players [in] Burundi regarding the political situation.” Yet it was the delegation’s take off, rather than its landing, that stole the spotlight, as Jacob Zuma’s presidential jet was stranded on the tarmac for several hours due to mechanical failure. As one observer quipped in a Tweet, “Zuma’s plane breaking down in Bujumbura might be the best metaphor for the African Union delegation to [Burundi].

No End in Sight

The current crisis began last April, when President Nkurunziza seized a third term in office, against the spirit of the country’s constitution that mandates a two-term limit. Much of the opposition boycotted the 2015 elections entirely, and as street violence and repression continue to escalate in a cycle of attack and counter attack, the President and his supporters have shown no real indication of an intention to change course. As the International Crisis Group has emphasized, Nkurunziza and his inner circle “have no plan but to stay in power as long as possible.”

In this context, the African Union intended to send a 5,000 troop peacekeeping force for civilian protection, an offer that was rolled back a month ago after Nkurunziza threatened to have Burundians fight the African Union’s peacekeepers if they were deployed. And on Friday, the delegation left Burundi without getting the government to accept any major intervention. At the conclusion of talks between Burundi’s government, some of Nkurunziza’s opponents and the high-level delegation, the South African president announced that “the AU will deploy one hundred human rights observers and one hundred military monitors.” It is unclear whether such a small presence will achieve anything apart from giving Nkurunziza 4,800 fewer pairs of boots on the ground to worry about.

With any major peacekeeping presence off the agenda in Burundi, the African Union’s energy has been redirected towards launching credible negotiations between the government and its many opponents. “We firmly believe that the challenges that Burundi faces can only be resolved through participation by all parties in inclusive dialogue whose result should be peace, security, and stability for the people of Burundi,” said Zuma.

However, there are high barriers to involving all relevant stakeholders in dialogue. Burundi scholar Rene Lemarchand has pointed out that “the anti-Nkurunziza opposition [is] fragmented and poorly organized.” Furthermore, many who oppose the actions of the current government have fled to Rwanda, Tanzania and elsewhere. Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD knows this too, and as a result, has loudly pushed back against calls for mediated dialogue to be held outside the country, as keeping the talks within the country’s own borders conveniently excludes large swaths of the opposition by default.

If engaging the opposition in inclusive negotiations about Burundi’s future looks challenging, that’s because it is. Yet bringing Nkurunziza and his current government into a credible dialogue may be an even larger obstacle. Pascal Nyabenda, the chairman of the CNDD-FDD Party, wrote on February 17th that from an insider perspective, the international community, including the United Nations and African Union, are looking “to destroy the CNDD-FDD Party and its government to reach their purpose of establishing a government of transition.” Against this backdrop, it is worth considering that the CNDD-FDD’s only ambition for engaging in dialogue is to give a small illusion of compromise while working to entrench its position in power.

The African Union delegation is pinning its hopes on a plan “for all the people of Burundi to participate in the inclusive dialogue that is being facilitated by President Museveni.” Yet Uganda’s president has been in power for 30 years himself, which raises serious questions about his ability to speak with authority on Nkurunziza’s intention to overstay in power. Furthermore, Museveni just renewed his presidency in an election where social media was blocked and the main opposition candidate was arbitrarily detained as voters went to the polls. And limitations extend beyond the dialogue’s chief mediator. The African Union delegation was sent to Burundi by its new chairperson, Chad’s Idriss Deby. President Deby has been in power himself for more than a quarter-century, and is likely to continue in that role after running for another term in Chad’s upcoming presidential elections in April.

Burundi needs real and immediate dialogue between opponents to Nkurunziza’s third term and the current government so that the country can stabilize. Due to a reluctant president, disparate opposition, and wide spread third-termism throughout the region, the African Union’s latest diplomatic efforts in Burundi were always going to be challenging. However, the failure of the African Union delegation to exert significant pressure on Burundi’s government has launched the crisis into a new phase – one that is marked by international inaction.