• African Union seen split over plan for Burundi peacekeeping
  • Country's crisis highlights issue of term limits for leaders

African Union leaders meet in Ethiopia this weekend as debate deepens over how to end Burundi’s nine-month political crisis in which more than 440 people have been killed.

The organization’s 15-nation security panel last month said it wanted to send 5,000 peacekeepers to the tiny East African country, where President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term, allegedly breaching the constitution, sparked protests, a failed coup and violence. Yet heads of state may be divided over the plan that hasn’t been backed by the United Nations Security Council and would be the first time the African Union sends peacekeepers to a member state without its approval.

Presidents, especially in nearby nations such as Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, “would not want to set the precedent that the AU can walk into your country and establish a military presence there without your consent,” Stephanie Wolters, head of conflict prevention and risk analysis at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, said in an interview in Addis Ababa, where the summit begins Saturday. Ethiopian Communications Minister Getachew Reda said the proposal probably won’t be adopted.

Election Year

Term limits are proving a contentious issue in Africa, with Nkurunziza one of several leaders being accused of trying to extend their rules in the face of popular discontent and, in some cases, the constitution.

Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni stands for re-election next month after 30 years in power, while Congo leader Joseph Kabila’s opponents say he’s stalling a series of votes that would oblige him to stand down. Rwanda President Paul Kagame plans to seek a third term in elections in 2017 after voters approved a change to the constitution.

Africa’s leaders probably won’t approve the peacekeeping force because Burundi’s government rejects it, which means it won’t get support from the UN council, according to Ethiopia’s Getachew. Burundi holds 6 percent of the world’s nickel reserves and is a member of the East African Community, a five-nation bloc with a combined gross domestic product of $147.5 billion.

“It’s going to be very difficult, as we have to bring the UN Security Council on board and, of course, there has to be some consultation with regional countries,” Getachew said by phone. “Hopefully, if the efforts are well-coordinated, there is a possibility, however remote, for this mission to really work.”

Protection Force

Heads of state may instead settle for a deal with Burundi that allows them to initially deploy 100 human-rights and military observers and a “small protection force,” Wolters said Jan. 27.

The U.S. has warned that language being heard in Burundi echoes that used in neighboring Rwanda before a genocide in 1994 that left at least 800,000 people dead. Rwanda and Burundi share a similar ethnic balance and the army is equally divided between Hutu and Tutu communities, in line with accords that ended a civil war in 2005.

Burundi’s crisis is complicated by its military’s role in the African Union mission in Somalia that’s battling al-Qaeda-linked militants. The situation in the Horn of Africa nation will also be a focus of the summit, after the Islamist group, al-Shabaab, overran a camp used by Kenyan soldiers and raided a beach-front restaurant in the capital, Mogadishu, earlier this month.

The two-day leaders’ summit will elect new members of the Peace and Security Council, the union’s most powerful panel, which is represented by countries from each region of Africa. The 54-member African Union has ambitions to establish a Continental Free Trade Area by 2017 and end conflict in Africa by the end of the decade.

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