THERE seems to a slow motion genocide happening in Burundi, following the violence unleashed by President Pierre Nkurunziza taking a third term, which his rivals is illegal.
More than 400 people have now been killed since April and over 220,000 others have fled as refugees to neighbouring countries, according to the United Nations.
Four hundred deaths, one could argue, is “too few” for genocide, considering that in neighbouring Rwanda nearly one million people were slaughtered in the 1994 genocide.
After all, “only” about 300,000 people were killed between 1993 and 2006 during Burundi’s first civil war – a third of the casualties in Rwanda.
This has led, surprising as it might seem, to the optimistic view that fears of a genocide in Burundi are alarmist, although the US and the African Union have both warned that there is a risk of it if the violence doesn’t end.
Misunderstanding Rwanda genocide
There is a way in which this is understandable. In Rwanda, nearly 800,000 people were killed in the 100 days from the night of April 7, 1994, when president Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down as it landed in Kigali. It happened when the hardline Hutu political elite in government was in a panic and angry, having lost the edge in the war against (present) President Paul Kagame’s Rwanda Patriotic Front/Army rebels.
However, that is a misunderstanding of what happened in Rwanda. The genocide climaxed - not started - dramatically in those 100 days. It had been happening at a micro level right from October 1990 when the RPF/A launched their attack from Uganda.
Because it was only a handful of people being killed every day, it was dismissed as the inevitable collateral damage of war.
What are happening in Burundi today are, similarly, micro killings. No one knows what the trigger that will bring the disastrous climax will be, but at least this time it seems some people at the AU sense a danger.
There is a lot of irony in that. The danger they sense has been brought on partly by the AU’s success in its campaign against the International Criminal Court (ICC), especially in its case against Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto for alleged crimes against humanity in the early 2008 post-election in Kenya.
That time the two men were in opposing parties, but four years later they formed an alliance and won the election.
As the politics of pride goes, and if one holds their human rights nose, one might feel some sympathy for the AU.
It considered that it was the height of racism and disrespect that the ICC, which it painted as an instrument of western imperialism that was targeting only Africans, refused to either defer the case, refer it to a continental court, or drop it all together despite a vast majority of African leaders backing various resolutions calling for such action.
The result was that 2013 and early 2014 was particularly an acrimonious period, with daily insults laced with reference to imperialism being hurled at the ICC and its “western backers” and threats of a mass African walk-out from the Rome Statute by Africa.
Matters were not helped by the fact that the ICC often didn’t look clinical in executing its case, allowing critics to accuse it of conducting a witch-hunt.
On the back foot, and as Africa and its international friends opened all guns on it, the ICC case against Kenyatta unraveled, and it dropped it in October 2014. Only the one against Ruto – and Kenyan journalist Joshua Sang - remains.
A costly victory
It was a “victory” for the AU, but it came at a high price. While African leaders said the continent would form its own court to try such cases, and even passed resolutions to do so, so much emotion and diplomatic capital had been invested in battling the ICC, there was no energy – or money – left to set up a credible “African ICC”.
The very virulent anti-western tone of the campaign had also spooked international groups and governments that usually pay for such things in Africa.
After all, the AU doesn’t pick up most of its tabs. Over 55% of its operational budget is paid by donors, and in excess of 90% of the costs for its flagship peacekeeping activities are also paid for by donors.
However, the partial defeat of the ICC was not just an Africa vs. the west affair. It’s consequences reached further.
African leaders had also won the debate domestically against civil society and donor governments that pushed the human rights agenda. From Uganda, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe, Angola, nearly a quarter of the countries on the continent pushed through new laws that constricted civil liberties and media freedom.
In short, some governments saw the AU’s triumph against the ICC as also giving them carte blanche to run rough shod over human rights unrestrained by niceties about “international law”.
Bashir emerges from isolation
In Sudan, ICC-indicted Omar al-Bashir became even dismissive of the UN peacekeepers there, as he found comfort and was welcomed back in an anti-ICC African leadership club.
But the biggest early sign of trouble came from the new nation of South Sudan, that again erupted into an unusually brutal war in December 2013 barely two years after independence from (north) Sudan, after President Salva Kiir fell out with his former vice president Riek Machar.
The South Sudanese belligerents strung the AU and the regional Horn and East Africa grouping IGAD (Intergovernmental Authority on Development) along for months, until the same western imperialists that Africa had railed against in the war against the ICC got into the fight, and started slapping sanctions on powerful figures in Juba.
Fearing what sanctions would do to their fortunes and their ability to profit from links to their diaspora, which is critical for their survival, Kiir and Machar gave in to a peace deal reluctantly.
But, whether intended or not, it was clear African leaders no longer feared that the cost of killing their people would be too high.
ICC haunts AU
Thus recently, when the AU decided that it would send 5,000 troops to stop the violence in Burundi, and would do so even if Nkurunziza said no, Bujumbura knew it was largely an empty threat.
The AU has no self-funding institutions, and had lost the moral authority, to do so. For if the AU thought the world had no business intervening and putting Bashir to task for the genocide in Darfur, what gives it the right to do so in Burundi, Bujumbura might ask.
And also because it didn’t marshal its own resources to tackle “Africa’s problems with Africa’s solutions”, the AU is fully aware that it cannot carry out its threats against the Burundi government, even if Nkurunziza and his foes continue the killings, without the west writing it a cheque to pay for the exercise. Look, when Rwanda’s troops were going to keep the peace nearby in the Central African Republic, it took USA military planes to fly them there.
It gets complicated
But even with that, at the end of the day, the AU too is only a small part of this. Something quite complex has been afoot in Africa for decades.
After the release of Nelson Mandela in 1990; his eventual election as South Africa’s first democratically elected leader four years later, and his very “unAfrican” decision to leave power after just one term, he went on to become the first African politician to acquire a near saint-like in the world.
Mandela seemed to get the world, and Africans, who had endured decades of disgraceful villains and flawed leaders, to have a different sunnier view of the continent.
Africa, logically, expected that it would in turn be treated differently. In the end, though, many felt they and the continent were seen as second-class global citizens, with little to offer.
Africa then overcame HIV/Aids. It had been ravaged and damaged, but it survived to fight another day. Many on the continent saw that as heroic. But the world didn’t seem to give them sufficient credit for it.
Somalia continued to spiral, and in 1993 the US had put its nose in with thousands of troops, and left with its tail between its legs.
In 1997, finally Uganda put boots on the ground, followed shortly after by Burundi. Then Djibouti joined, and four years later Kenya and subsequently Ethiopia.
Somalia is nearly stabilised. Africa had succeeded where a superpower had failed.
Then came more than a decade of sustained economic growth, and the arrival of the “Africa Rising” buzz – Africans were getting rich, and more and leaders were coming to power, and leaving, it via free or almost free elections, not coups.
Even Barack Obama’s election as the USA’s first black president fed into this African exuberance, unleashing a new expectation that “blackness” would be looked at differently in global power.
In total sum, this was a continent that was getting impatient about being treated as a junior partner, and not getting its rightful place at the world table.
The campaign against the ICC gained traction because for some it was a proxy war for African respect and place at that table. It was one reason why intellectuals who supported the ICC, couldn’t create a powerful enough counter-narrative in its support in the face of attacks.
The anti-ICC push might have been a flawed cause, but it was the one that had the most money and political support from the big men behind it.
But for all its success, opposing the ICC and international law never became a sexy issue; it didn’t attract sufficient creative juice.
And so it was a victory without a trophy. In the end, there was no working African court to punish human rights abusers. Even the “Africa rising” reality has not result into new economic or scholarship institutions to chart a new way.
To make matters worse, the promise of new oil and commodity wealth for Africa to pay its own way, evaporated in the 2015 commodity crunch.
There were just gaping holes in the ground where the foundations were to be built. And the worst types of demagogues, and power-hungry men were left riding high.
Burundi’s defiance could be seen as the metaphorical revenge of the ICC. And it won’t be the last as Africa heads into a string of potentially explosive elections over the next three years.