The crisis that has engulfed Burundi since April 2015 is the result of infighting among a small number of insiders belonging to the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD. Having all fought in the bush together, some of them felt that the president, Pierre Nkurunziza, should make way for others to have a turn at the top job, and refused to accept his plan to rule for life.
Most senior members of the regime were and remain officers, having joined the new army at senior ranks after the civil war. The government presents a civilian veneer to the outside world, but it has always been military at heart. Although its rank and file were not involved in these internecine struggles, it was inevitable that the military would be drawn into the crisis, most dramatically in the failed coup attempt of May 2015.
Since then, tit-for-tat assassinations have pitted regime loyalists against real or supposed opponents, and a climate of fear has enveloped the army.
A post-war success?
The history of the Burundian army sheds light on recent developments. It was created in its current form in 2004 as a merger of Hutu rebel groups and the old Tutsi-dominated army, who had fought each other to a standstill in the ten-year long civil war (1993-2003).
Benefiting from heavy international support, Burundi’s military was presented as a big success of the country’s post-war reconstruction. This had some foundation. Training and fighting abroad together did improve the army’s esprit de corps. This helps explain why, despite ongoing violence, the army is not in open factional warfare.
However, gains made by training and deployment had their limits. The senior ranks are still part of a violent and corrupt regime operating with zero-sum political mentality. Parallel chains of command reach up to the presidency, wielding great power, undermining formal structures and sowing distrust.
The main factor that has kept the new army together is, unsurprisingly in such a poor country, money. And the source of the money has been international peacekeeping operations. Participation in UN and AU operations is one of the five missions of the new army, according to its own founding texts.
Deploying to Somalia
From December 2007, the Burundian army has been deployed in the largest military operation in Africa: the African mission in Somalia, AMISOM. The size of the Burundian contingent (around 5,000) and the length of time deployed means that nearly all Burundian soldiers and officers have done at least one tour. Participation in AMISOM has brought international training opportunities and the chance to deploy elsewhere, notably in the UN operation in the Central African Republic.
Salaries in Burundi range from $80 per month for troops to $250-300 per month for senior officers. But AMISOM soldiers got, up to the end of 2015, $1,032 a month. Combined with some other perks such as preferential loan rates, this was enough for many soldiers to buy land or property, start a family, or help their community. Meanwhile, death in duty benefits, at $50,000, are a fortune by Burundian standards. Interestingly these are a flat rate for all. Despite the considerable risks, there is certainly no shortage of volunteers for posts in AMISOM.
Up to 2016, the Burundian government took $200 from each monthly pay package for running costs. This is not an unimportant sum, especially since donors started pulling out of the country in 2015. But the main benefit for the government lies in the money the soldiers receive, which allows them to keep 25,000 former rebels and troops happy regardless of how the country is run or how well the government’s own budget is spent.
Calling the EU’s bluff
Following instability of the 1990s, Burundi is one of several African countries (along with Chad, Uganda, Rwanda) using or have used deployment in international operations to improve a country’s international image; gain leverage over donors who see international operations as a priority; and buy off potential internal dissent.
So far so simple. But what happens if the political strains of authoritarian rule threaten the democratic image of the country? This question, almost existential for the regime in Bujumbura, was raised by the EU’s decision, in March 2016, to withhold its payments to Burundian troops in AMISOM. The EU has long paid all troop salaries for AMISOM, although had reduced the amount paid from $1,032 to $800 in late-2015 (for reasons not connected to Burundi).
The March 2016 decision was motivated by the EU’s decision that Burundi was failing to meet its obligations concerning democracy and respect for human rights. Burundi reacted, predictably enough, by threatening to pull its troops out of AMISOM. The EU, its bluff called, came to an arrangement, through the AU, to continue to pay Burundian troops, with the appearance of bypassing the government and preventing it from taking its cut for running costs.
A risky strategy
This episode tells us that the leverage that troop-contributing countries have over donors is very real. The Burundian contingent, considered effective, was seen, at least in the short term, as irreplaceable. And international interests in the mission in Somalia far outweigh any desire to exercise leverage over Burundian authorities. At the back of the mind of many European officials was also the question: if we stop payments to Burundian troops and they go home, could it have a de-stabilising effect on the country?
But the longer term is less certain. The level of EU support to AMISOM is controversial in Brussels where British officials have fought long and hard against a French desire to redirect European spending towards the West African Sahel. Even without the UK leaving the Union, support for AMISOM would have been under great pressure. And meanwhile, the AU is locked in lengthy negotiations concerning how to finance itself from member state contributions.
The international partners who supported the Burundian army between 2004 and 2015 are the same as those who have supported AMISOM – namely, the EU, its member states, and the US. Motivated in large part by a desire to generate troops for AMISOM and other missions, they presumably accepted that calculations of how large an army Burundi could sustain would be based in part on participation in missions abroad.
But this left little room for consideration of the merits of heavily funding an army in a country run by an increasingly authoritarian regime. And now, the new international environment, with a financial squeeze in Europe, a more restrictive US position concerning UN peacekeeping, and ongoing concerns over Burundi’s human rights record makes relying on peacekeeping to fund the Burundian army a risky strategy.
(c) 2017 International Crisis Group