Stopping the Spiral in Burundi

“The problem we are trying to resolve in Burundi is political and cannot be solved using military means. These [peacekeeping] troops will not solve the crisis but will create an enabling environment to continue the peace talks.”

The date is October 16, 2001, and the speaker is former South African President Nelson Mandela. As mediator of the Arusha peace talks on Burundi, he had just requested his successor, President Thabo Mbeki, to deploy South African forces to support the process. The Burundian government at the time, led by President Pierre Buyoya, was strongly opposed to such a force stating: “Burundians are not happy with this decision and will never accept it.” The idea of deploying a neutral force into Burundi had been mooted several years earlier by the former mediator, retired Tanzanian President Mwalimu Julius Nyerere who like Mandela, argued that: “Military intervention will not solve the problem but you cannot rule it out because killings and assassinations are going on and with the people absolutely frightened we cannot sit and let them continue.”

Despite the Burundian government’s resistance, Pretoria on October 30, 2001, deployed the South African Protection Service Detachment (SAPSD) to Burundi to protect exiles returning to negotiate the final stages of the peace talks. In 2003, as ceasefire talks gained momentum, the African Union, deployed the African Mission to Burundi (AMIB), mostly comprising South African, Ethiopian, and Mozambican troops to provide civilian protection, among other tasks. AMIB was later “rehatted” as the United Nations Mission to Burundi (ONUB), with South African Special Forces staying on as a separate African Union Specialist Task Force (AUSTF) until 2007. These deployments enabled the return of exiles to negotiate the final status talks, provided protection to civilians, created confidence for the return of refugees and assisted the implementation of transitional arrangements, including disarmament and military reform.

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