Surprising turn of events, the East African Heads of State Summit that was scheduled to take place last week, November 30, flopped and was postponed to December 27.
A press statement from the East African Community said the summit “did not take place because of lack of quorum caused by the absence of Burundi …”
The Citizen newspaper of Tanzania called the flop “unprecedented in the history of the East African Community.” What’s unprecedented is that the postponement was made after the arrival at the conference venue in Arusha of Ugandan president and chairperson of the EAC Yoweri Museveni. Kenyan President Uhuru Kenyatta and Tanzanian President John Magufuli.
That the three leaders and delegations from South Sudan and Rwanda travelled to Arusha without knowing that Burundi wouldn’t attend is not only embarrassing but a symptom of a bigger problem.
So, what does the flop and Burundi’s failure to show up tell us about the EAC? First, it tells us about a possible breakdown in communication between some leaders, lack of courtesy and a crisis of leadership. Only unhappiness between some leaders and premeditated ill-will on the part of Burundi can explain the flop.
This is especially true since President Museveni as the chairperson had suggested in a November 25 letter to President Nkurunziza that if he can’t attend, he should send a delegation.
That Nkurunziza neither turned up nor sent a delegation well knowing that rule 11 of the Community’s procedures require all partner states for a meeting to proceed tells us he intended the outcome.
To neutral observers, Burundi’s defiance isn’t surprising but is part of a pattern that has affected the working of other EAC organs like the legislative assembly (EALA) and peace efforts overseen by former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa.
Second, as the media reported, the Mkapa report was supposed to be presented to leaders at the summit and since Museveni was quoted saying, after receiving it on November 19, that Burundi needs to make a new constitution acceptable to all, Burundi’s no-show is a statement against any attempts that would demand compromise with opponents.
Evidence suggests this has been a long time coming and EAC leaders are harvesting the fruits of their indifferent peacemaking efforts in Burundi, which allowed Nkurunziza to frustrate peace efforts while cracking down on opponents at home.
Successful peacemaking efforts that lead to an amicable solution that is acceptable to all parties not only starts with agreeing what the problem is and its cause is but also committed, trusted and united peacemakers.
EAC leaders, who are the peacemakers in Burundi were neither committed nor united in their understanding of the problem or its resolution. For instance, while leaders agreed that Burundi faced a political crisis that needed resolving when protests against Nkurunziza’s push for a third term broke out in April 2015, they didn’t have consensus on its cause although it was obvious to neutral observers.
Protesters said the problem was Nkurunziza’s illegitimate third term and violating the Arusha Peace Agreement and everyone agreed with this except Nkurunziza’s supporters.
Instead of seizing the moment and resolving the cause of the conflict which was the perceived illegitimate third term, leaders played the game of “wait and see” and didn’t call the problem by its rightful name.
Under the guise of hunting down coup plotters, Nkurunziza mounted a crackdown on traditional centres of dissent like the media, civil society and opposition parties.
As a BBC story titled “Burundi: inside the secret killing House” put it on December 4, the government put in place an “Organised Programme to eliminate critics of the third term” and the “security services are running secret torture and detentionsites to silence dissenter”.
A UN report dated September 2018 puts such torture centres to at and concludes that what has been going on “constitute crimes against humanity.”
On November 30, the governmen upped-the-ante and issued international arrest warrants for seventeen individuals including former President Pierre Buyoya for the assassination of former president Melchior Ndadaye.
Observers say this is a hardening of position by Nkurunziza and dismantles the “Arusha Consensus” that ended a decade’s war in 2005 calling for reconciliation.
Simply put therefore, when EAC peacemakers failed to swiftly fix the problem when it was still “hot” they sowed seeds prolonged conflict and gave Nkurunziza confidence to believe he could defy the EAC or bend it to his will.