By Jan Oberg
When I put things together in the early morning of May 15 – mainstream media reports, Twitter, Facebook and info from Burundi and my 13 years of experience there – Chapter One of the Burundi crisis is over. Another very bleak chapter is opening. Everything is worse now in Burundi.
The coup d’etat of May 13 has failed, its masters being arrested. President Nkurunziza who was in Tanzania when ousted will return as soon as he feels he can trust enough loyalists; there may well be increased repression of the people everywhere and violence between loyalists and opposition. Toward civil war? Toward genocide?
PressInfo 319 was an early warning. PressInfo 320 dealt with some hopes and possible outcomes – in which a coup d’etat was predicted. However, neither hopes nor denials make a policy and certainly don’t save lives.
The international so-called community’s response so far has, no exception, been woefully inefficient.
The African Union which ought to have action capacity and serve as mediator came out with the usual diplomatic appeals to all sides about showing restraint (echoing an equally lame UN Secretary-General). Incredibly, it condemned only the coup makers but not the massive brutality with which Burundi’s political and military leadership have attacked every citizen-democratic protest the last weeks – protest against the President’s arrogant violation of both the Arusha agreements and the Burundian constitution.
The UN Security Council at least “condemned both those who facilitate violence of any kind against civilians and those who seek to seize power by unlawful means.” In essence, neither the AU nor the UN understands a democratic citizens’ perspective.
Left may very well be another option mentioned in PressInfo 320 (point 4), invasion by Rwanda’s Kagame to restore the law and order that is likely to disappear completely in the next few days and weeks.
Burundi has no strategic resources of any value to the usual NATO interventionists. The only motive would be truly humanitarian. So who would bother?
Plan a genuine humanitarian intervention now
One of many criteria of the type of humanitarian intervention that includes military means is that there is a very high probability, given all factors in a solid diagnosis and prognosis, that the number of lives saved from death in the future must be several times higher than the lives such an intervention may cost when it takes place.
Burundi is such a case in point. Ideally, at least. And with some imagination.
With the right timing, a UN-led combined military-police-civilian operation to neutralise (not kill) the present leadership in Burundi would likely save a very high number of lives and millions of people from suffering as well as prevent thousands from being wounded or having to flee (70,000 already have). It would have to be the UN – preferably with a large contingent from other African countries and none from Europe and the US – to be expressive of the conscience of humanity.
It would stop a further destabilisation of the already volatile region.
The problem is that there is no such force on stand-by and the UN Security Council would hardly agree to setting it up.
Parts of an international force would have to be flown in with maximum protection to this landlocked country, others arriving successively over land – a kind of air bridge. The rapid concentration of international soldiers in neighbouring countries would, in and of itself, send a strong message to the leadership in Bujumbura and help facilitate a negotiated solution.
Burundi’s military would not be a big match for an international force attempting to occupy central state institutions, government buildings and state media and put President Nkurunziza and the people around him in house arrest for some weeks. (The corrupt elite has whitewashed its money by building a ridiculous number of luxury hotels with few or no customers so it wouldn’t be a problem to provide the President, his family, party leaders, ministers, military leaders and others with a decent living standard during those weeks).
The bigger problem would be how to set up a caretaker government to manage the country and build the preconditions for truly free and democratic elections.
It would have to consist of opposition politicians with clean hands, representatives of the Burundian civil society, UN-appointed negotiators, area experts, peace- and nation-building consultants etc. And naturally provide for the rightful participation by the present ruling party members whose interests cannot and should not be ignored. In short, highly inclusive political government.
The international force would consist of some thousand well-trained, multinational military people, UN police and UN Civil Affairs people, the last-mentioned to take over a series of practical day-to-day affairs of the people. It would work closely with all civil society factors, liaise with the former leadership until elections could be held under the supervision of the already existing UN Electoral Observation Mission in Burundi (MENUB) https://menub.unmissions.org/en – that would have to be given a larger, longer and well-financed mandate.
This is a heuristic proposal – meaning both to say something about how to handle the emerging serious crisis in Burundi and point out where and how the international community ought to improve its capabilities for violence-prevention and peace-building in one.
Because, frankly: Why do we continue to prepare for war but do so little so late, every time, to save lives?
Before such an intervention, diplomatic and other pressure must be stepped-up. But we must also take into account that no amount of popular protests or international pleas has moved President Nkurunziza an inch. After the failed coup against him, his regime is likely to be both more daring and more brutal – trying to root out every and each type of opposition. In my judgement the risk is considerable that we would soon see a dictatorship and/or civil war.
The argument is not that such a truly life-saving intervention must take place right now.
But an international community that professes to believe in ”the responsibility to protect” should do its planning now so an intervention could be implemented on the ground within, say, a week after a UN mandate and well before massive violence is introduced.
Or shall we once again hear the ”Never again!” mantra because we learned nothing and did nothing in time to prevent a – preventable – humanitarian catastrophe?