Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza says he will consider any deployment of African Union peacekeepers in his troubled nation an attack against which he will retaliate militarily.
“Everyone has to respect Burundi's borders. In case they violate those principles, they will have attacked the country and every Burundian will stand up and fight against them," Nkurunziza announced in a national address on Wednesday that sent shockwaves through the international community and left many wondering how the continental union of nations will respond.
"The country will have been attacked and it will respond," he said.
Nkurunziza faces increasing opposition from the AU and the international community over his unpopular quest to extend his tenure as president of the tiny central African nation. He weathered a May coup attempt and won a disputed election in July, though violence has continued.
According to South Africa-based security analyst Stephanie Wolters, Nkurunziza’s brio comes as no surprise, as Burundi's top elected official has been building up to the statement with increasingly strong rhetoric since first proposing constitutional changes allowing him to seek a third presidential term.
Wolters, who heads the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis program at the Pretoria-based Institute for Security Studies, says Nkurunziza's direct challenge to the AU, which only recently began flexing its muscles in terms of continental peace and security issues, bodes poorly for continuing peace talks in Uganda.
“I think the fact that Nkurunziza has said he will attack African Union troops, it’s not a blow to the AU," she told VOA. "It makes his government look entirely irresponsible; it makes the government look like a government that doesn’t want to resolve a crisis. The African Union now, of course, is going to have to figure out how tough it wants to be in response to that.”
While the AU has legal backing to send in troops anyway, that move might only escalate the conflict, thereby defeating the primary purpose of a peacekeeping force. Rather than overruling the president, Wolters suggests AU officials should instead put peacekeeping plans on pause and strike a deal to round out its complement of neutral military and civilian observers in Burundi.
She also says Nkurunziza’s threat could backfire: In recent years, Burundi has been an active contributor to AU peacekeeping missions, which means Burundian soldiers may find themselves face to face with their former battle buddies.
“Nkurunziza may well say, ‘we’re going to combat AU forces,’ but there’s really no guarantee that the army is going to do that," she said. "In fact, this is a key point here. The army has been less than willing to participate in Nkurunziza’s crackdowns on civilians, and so his threat may very well be very hollow. This may very well be the point at which the army says, ‘that’s it, we’ve had enough of this guy, we’re not going to go combating African Union troops, who, sometimes, we fight alongside.’”
Nkurunziza’s comments were issued as the specter of regional conflict, messy regional politics and ethnic violence loom: Burundi and neighboring Rwanda have long been politically at odds, with Burundi frequently accusing Rwanda of meddling in its affairs. Most recently, Bujumbura alleged that Kigali recruited Burundian refugees to overthrow Nkurunziza’s government.
Complicating things further, the presidents of the two nations are from the two rival ethnic groups that clashed in Rwanda’s 1994 genocide. Both tiny nations are dwarfed by the giant, messy Democratic Republic of Congo, whose social and political troubles often spill over borders, wreaking havoc throughout the region.