The 26th Ordinary Session of the African Union Assembly came to a conclusion last week with few resolutions and many questions left unanswered on the most pressing issues facing the continent.
The Summit aptly declared 2016 the “African Year of Human Rights with Particular Focus on the Rights of Women”. Even though progress is still required, celebrating human rights in the course of the year on the continent will be more about creating opportunities to consolidate on the gains made in this area over the years. Granting particular attention to specific integral areas like the rights of women will go a long way in deepening the human rights culture on the continent and is therefore a commendable theme. As much as headlines go however, this was as much as consensus and conclusiveness went at the end of the Summit.
Dialogue Over Intervention in Burundi
Prior to the Summit, there was a lot of expectation on what the decision of the AU would be on the situation in Burundi. This was heightened by Burundi’s forthright dismissal of plans by the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) to deploy Peacekeeping troops to the country which was announced in December. The slow but steady deterioration of the situation in Burundi is one that has lingered and this Summit provided the AU an opportunity to take a decisive step towards ending the crisis before it plunges the country into another civil war.
But this was not the case. The Summit ended with AU leaders effectively shelving the planned deployment of peacekeeping troops to the country, electing instead to send a delegation to try and negotiate peace. This is perhaps in the hope that the AU would succeed were regional leaders in East Africa have failed. Nkurunziza’s stance so far since the issue of his intention to run for a third term ignited protests in the country, makes it difficult to be hopeful on the prospects of negotiated peace in Burundi, without some form of external pressure; one that the AU appears quite uncertain of applying at the moment.
Consensus in Call for Withdrawal from ICC
The most interesting headline following the conclusion of the Summit was that of the consideration of a mass withdrawal by African countries from the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court (ICC). South Africa’s President Jacob Zuma announced that his country was reviewing its participation in the Rome State, whilst his Kenyan counterpart Uhuru Kenyatta claimed that he has been “distracted from the duty to serve” by the constant harassment of his government by the ICC. But the debate on the perceived persecution of African countries by the ICC is a long-standing one and looking at the facts, there are justifiable grounds for African leaders to be concerned. Since its establishment in 2002, about 23 cases across nine countries have been brought before the ICC, with eight of those being African countries, including Sudan and Libya who are non-member states. In the past, leaders like Paul Kagame of Rwanda have referred to the ICC as a fraudulent institution and Jean Ping, a former Chairman of the African Union Commission was quoted as having questioned why countries like Argentina, Myanmar and even Iraq have not had leaders brought before the ICC.
It would appear that the spotting resentment towards the ICC by African leaders is moving towards a consensus that will have quite revealing ramifications for the work of the ICC considering Africa with 34 states is the continent with the highest number of signatories. This situation must however be interpreted with caution. Apart from Kenya which voted to withdraw from the ICC in 2013 and South Africa that has commenced the process of withdrawing shortly after the Summit last week, most countries who are signatories to the Rome Statute are yet to take any serious step towards withdrawal and even when they do, the process would take a couple of years to conclude. It also remains to be seen how many leaders will be willing and able to maintain their stand when external forces start exerting pressure.
Are there any Positives?
Many persons including the exiled leader of the opposition FRODEBU party in Burundi Jean Minani expressed disappointment at the decision of the AU not to send peacekeeping troops to Burundi at the end of the summit. He claimed that the action of the AU amounted to turning their backs on the people of Burundi whilst the government of President Pierre Nkurunziza continues with the systemic persecution of the opposition in the country.
However, the decision of the AU to first explore dialogue as a means of ending the crisis is one that must be commended, albeit to an extent. Considering the history of disastrous military interventions in countries in various parts of the world at different times, it does make some sense for the AU to show caution in situations like this. Interventions should indeed be employed only as a last resort. The recent successful efforts by West African leaders to negotiate a peaceful transition in Burkina Faso provide reasons to be optimistic about the decision of the AU to explore dialogue as a solution to the situation in Burundi. Hopefully the high-level delegation of leaders from Mauritania, South Africa, Senegal, Gabon and Ethiopia can prevail on Nkurunziza’s government to respect the sovereignty of his people in the same way as the AU has shown respect for the sovereignty of Burundi.
In the following months and years, it will become more apparent if African countries are really serious about withdrawing from the ICC. Whether or not they do, the fact that the issue is now on the front burner of discourses emerging from an AU summit must be considered a positive development overall. But the rhetoric and the discourse is only a start; one that is long overdue.
So often leaders, activists and academics alike have cried foul about the unfairness, insensitivity and inappropriateness of western-driven solutions for problems facing African countries, without proffering viable alternatives. With respect to the ICC and the prosecution of leaders and individuals who commit war crimes and crimes against humanity, reference has often being made to efforts to establish an African Court of Justice and Human and Peoples’ Rights as an alternative to the ICC. But operationalising this court is still a distant possibility and the current legal framework for its establishment has some drawbacks that mean it might not provide a comprehensive lasting alternative to the ICC.
The 26th AU Summit has indeed raised many questions, rather than providing many answers. Afrocentrics can however celebrate the fact that some important questions are now being posed, the answers to which will have important ramifications for the pride and people of the continent.
By Matthew Ayibakuro
It would seem that relative stability has returned to Burundi after days of uncertainty on the leadership of the country and weeks of protests and violence over President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term in office. Majority of the alleged coup leaders are in custody and have already appeared before a prosecutor, whilst the leader of the coup, Godefroid Niyombare, a general and ex-intelligence chief, is said to be still at large.
A couple of days ago, President Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya asked his counterpart Nkurunziza to postpone the presidential election due next month, to create a conducive environment, but to ensure that the vote be held within the current electoral cycle in the country, which comes to an end in late August. Nkurunziza is back in the country and back in charge; three members of his cabinet were promptly dismissed while soldiers have been deployed to ensure that the protests do not continue. Only time will tell if the fires set alight by the recent events have finally been quenched.
Meanwhile in a rather dramatic twist, Nkurunziza, in his first speech back in the country chose to speak only about the country being under attack from the Somali-based al-Qaeda-linked group al-Shabab. No words are spoken about the over 105,000 Burundians who have reportedly fled the country because of the crisis, or about the many lives lost in the process. Whether or not al-Shabab’s refutal of the claims of any impending attack against Burundi is believed or not, the fact that this was the principal message in his first appearance in the capital after the now-referred-to-as-attempted coup is a clear indication that the President does not grasp the magnitude and implications of the situation and his actions. Perhaps he just does not care.
Third Term-ism and Perpetual Leadership in Africa and Beyond: Reaction of the International Community
Perhaps, he believes he is in good company in the context of political leadership in Africa. After all, just last month, Togo’s Faure Gnassingbe and Sudan’s Omar al-Bashir were both re-elected as leaders of their respective countries. Whilst Faure is beginning his third term in office despite widespread protests, Bashir is a ‘veteran’ who has been in power since 1989. In fact, it is no news that there are similar long-serving leaders in Zimbabwe, Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Guinea Bissau, Cameroun Eritrea and Uganda.
This list could actually admit a few more countries and it is this profusion that probably emboldens leaders like Nkurunziza to believe they can get away with extending their tenures by any means necessary, including threatening supreme court judges into exile and shooting live ammunition at protesters. Outside Africa, countries like Iran, Cambodia, Kazakhstan, Belarus, Iceland and Syria also boasts similarly long-serving leaders. It is indeed a global phenomenon.
In terms of the reaction of the international community to events like those in Burundi, the United Nations and the African Union, as expected, would usually release press statements condemning the coup attempt, whilst at the same time “urging” members states to respect their constitutions. And so they did. The leaders of the countries in question are often called by the Secretary General of the UN or some other “powerful” leader, and we are informed that they have been told basically the same message contained in the press statements, making you wonder what was the essence of the call in the first place. Beyond this, whether or not anything more is done by the international community falls to the grey realm of conspiracy theories on reasons why countries like the United States of America or organisations like NATO invades one country to topple a government, and not the other. This is a subject for another day.
The Rise of the Masses
In the last decade, and especially since 2011, the masses in various countries are beginning to stand up against leaders who display a propensity to perpetuate themselves in office. The unprecedented events of the Arab Spring provides the most palpable instances. However, as recent as last year, Blaise Compaore of Burkina Faso was forced to resign his office as President after 27 years at the helm amid violent protests against his continued stay in power.
Whilst the masses play their role, it is time for the international community, and especially the United Nations and regional organisations to start lay out a clear strategy and approach towards leaders bent on perpetuating themselves in office. It makes no sense to condemn the actions of Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi, while simultaneously asking Yoweri Museveni, who has ruled his country for 29 years, to intervene and help resolve the crisis in Burundi.
It is important for the UN and other regional bodies to establish unequivocally what the approach to this issue should be. There should either be clear condemnation of such leaders and actions to support same, or a straightforward acceptance of the situation on grounds of sovereignty or whatever makes sense. The approach of lukewarmness adopted over the years has borne little or no fruits in Africa and elsewhere.
ECOWAS Taking the Lead
Encouragingly, the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) has decided to take the lead on this as it pushes to consider a new clause that would prohibit presidents of members states from staying beyond two terms. If successful, this would be a welcome development that should be replicated in other regions of the continent, and indeed the UN, towards creating a lasting solution to the concern of self-perpetuating leaders.
Not oblivious of the challenge inherent in implementing a clause like this in the context of international law, ECOWAS intends to adopt a new legal regime for Community Acts that will make all ECOWAS decisions immediately applicable and binding on member states and eliminate the need for parliamentary ratifications.
Whilst one awaits the outcome of initiatives like that of ECOWAS, there is no doubt that the most significant step towards putting a stop to perpetual leaders remains popular uprising. There is nothing that will prove as successful as the masses themselves rising against such leaders. It proved successful against Nigeria’s President Olusegun Obasanjo’s bid for a third term back in 2006/2007. It pushed Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaore out of office in 2014, and considering the masses have remained on the streets even after the failed coup in Burundi, it is safe to say that the last has not been heard of that particular situation.
The power-drunk leaders in Africa are slowly but surely coming to the realization that ‘kangaroo’ referendums, manipulated constitutional amendments and intimidation of the judiciary would no longer be enough to secure a life presidency.