Burundi said it has the backing of other nations in refusing to accept an African Union (AU) peacekeeping force as leaders from across the continent met ahead of an unprecedented vote on the potential deployment of 5,000 troops to the crisis-hit country.
Talks at the AU Peace and Security Council in Addis Ababa, attended by presidents and foreign ministers as well as UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, stretched late into Friday night in a bid to narrow positions before the opening of a summit on Saturday.
AU Peace and Security Council chief Smail Chergui said “the stakes are indeed high”, but Burundi remained defiant in its opposition to a mission it describes as an “invasion force”.
Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza is not attending the talks, but foreign minister Alain Aime Nyamitwe insisted he had the support of other nations in opposing such a deployment.
When asked whether he had the backing, Nyamitwe replied with an emphatic: “Yes, very strong, you will see”, according to a report.
Gambian President Yahya Jammeh said “It is not only Burundi that is resisting this idea…. most interveners in a country are not welcomed.”
When asked whether he also would oppose a military deployment, Jammeh said “Without the consent of Burundi, yes.”
A two-thirds majority would be required to send in an AU force, but it remains unclear who would be willing to contribute troops.
However, the AU charter’s Article 4h gives the pan-African bloc the right to intervene in a fellow state “in respect of grave circumstances, namely: war crimes, genocide and crimes against humanity.”
Street protests, a failed coup and scattered violence began when Nkurunziza announced in April his intention to run for a controversial third term, which he went on to win in a much-disputed July election.
“We have said that the deployment of this force is not justified, and we gave the reasons for this rejection, that we believe that the situation in the country is under control,” Nyamitwe said.
With Nkurunziza unmoved by AU and UN appeals, there have already been moves to water down the proposed military force to that of an observer mission.
The UN has warned that Burundi risks a repeat of a 1993-2005 civil war, with some 400 dead since April and at least 230,000 people fleeing to neighbouring countries.
South Sudan on the agenda
The AU’s Peace and Security Council also discussed efforts to combat terrorism on the continent and the devastating two-year war in South Sudan, which grinds on despite an August peace deal.
Like Nkurunziza, South Sudan President Salva Kiir is also not expected to attend the summit.
But Nhial Deng Nhial, South Sudan’s government negotiator in peace talks, dismissed concerns negotiations were deadlocked, with violence ongoing and fears of potential famine.
“As far as we’re concerned, the implementation of the peace process still remains on track,” Nhial said.
The conflict now involves multiple armed forces who pay little heed to paper peace deals and are driven by local agendas or revenge attacks, analysts say.
Tens of thousands have died in the war, more than 2.3 million people have been driven from their homes and 3.9 million South Sudanese face severe food shortages.