Burundi has nothing to offer SADC

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Kelvin Jakachira

Last week a special envoy from Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza was in Harare to canvass support for his country’s admission into the Southern African Development Community [Sadc].

As part of a diplomatic offensive, Burundi’s Foreign Affairs Minister, Ezehiel Mbigira met President Emmerson Mnangagwa and promised him that Bujumbura has a lot to offer to Sadc if its application is successful.

 “As you know, Burundi has applied to become a member of Sadc and the process of dealing with our application is going on very well,” Mbigira said after meeting President Mnangagwa. “As Zimbabwe is our sister country, we believe that Zimbabwe will continue to support Burundi to become a member of Sadc.”

The visit by the special envoy comes ahead of a Sadc assessment mission’s visit to Burundi at the end of May.

The chairperson of the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Foreign Affairs, Kindness Paradza, said Zimbabwe should support Burundi’s efforts, claiming that Burundi’s acceptance into Sadc would help ease trade between the two countries since both nations were members of the Common Market of East and Southern Africa [COMESA].

“Burundi is part of COMESA and Zimbabwe is also part of COMESA, and also recently the Zimbabwe Parliament has ratified the African Continental Free Trade Area, so we are removing all the trade barriers within the continent, and it’s a good idea if they agree, our SADC leaders, to admit Burundi, it’s ok, it’s a brother,” said Paradza.

But questions have been raised if truly Burundi will bring any significant value to Sadc or it will just be a source of headaches to the bloc, given its chequered record on human rights and democracy.

Burundi is a member of the East African Community together with Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, DRCongo and South Sudan. It is the only country in that bloc that has failed to ratify important treaties. It has not even ratified the Mutual Recognition Agreement that provides for professionals to move freely and work in the region without permits. This is because Burundi has no regulatory bodies to oversee the practice of these professions and has no legal framework to create them.

Also, Burundi has not been contributing to the EAC budget, with reports showing that it owes the bloc over US$10m.

Again, Burundi is not realising the benefits of the Single Customs Union because its revenue authority has little capacity to work with others in the region in ensuring goods come from the ports to Bujumbura in the easiest way possible.

More worrying is that there is political instability in Burundi, which was stoked by Nkurunzinza’s decision in 2015 to change the constitution to gain a third term in office. The political crisis has led to the death of almost 1,000 people and left hundreds of thousands displaced.  Several thousands have sought sanctuary in neighbouring countries.

Burundi also stands accused of creating regional instability in the Great Lakes region, with Rwanda blaming its twin neighbour of harbouring a rebel movement that is responsible for cross border incursions.

Furthermore, Burundi has been accused of gross human rights violations, attracting the attention of the International Criminal Court which has launched investigations into crimes committed since 2015.

In responding to the accusations, Burundi forced the United Nations to shut its human rights office after a report commissioned by the UN accused the government and its supporters of being responsible for crimes against humanity.

In an unprecedented move, Burundi banned both the BBC and VOA from operating in the country after the two media outlets raised red flags over its human rights record. The ban is indefinite and extends to journalists, both foreign and domestic, who provide information to either broadcaster.

One criterion, which is key for any country to join Sadc, says the applying country must show “commonality of political, economic, social and cultural systems with the systems of the region”.

In addition, the applicant must conform to the criteria approved in 2003 in Dar es Salaam, which includes the observance of the principles of democracy, human rights, good governance and the rule of law, in accordance with the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights.

The African Development Bank’s East African economic outlook report says Burundi contributes less to the region’s growth due to political instability. According to the report, an unstable macroeconomic framework in countries such as Burundi has regional spillovers that constrain East Africa’s investment and growth.

Above all else, Burundi is a problem child in the EAC. It has been accused of egotism by fellow EAC members. A summit of the EAC heads of state in Arusha was postponed in December last year after Burundi’s leadership failed to show up. The sin of all sins, other EAC leaders – Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, John Pombe Magufuli of Tanzania, and Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya – had already arrived at the venue. Rwanda and South Sudan were represented at the summit by ministers.

The summit wanted to discuss the status of the ratification of various protocols; resolution of longstanding non-tariff barriers, and a progress report on the adoption of a political confederation as a transitional model to the envisaged East African political federation.

An inter-Burundi dialogue held in December 2017 in Arusha, Tanzania, left the facilitator and former Tanzanian president, Benjamin Mkapa, incensed after the Burundi delegation failed to attend a key session of the Inter-Burundi Dialogue.

The dialogue was aimed at addressing the security and political crisis in the country. It ended with no agreement.

“I was deeply disappointed by the decision of the Burundi government, the ruling party and allied parties not to attend the fifth session,” Mkapa said.

If Burundi is causing such exasperations in the EAC, how ready is it to join Sadc, a more coherent bloc?

The Council of Ministers meeting in February 2017 ruled out Burundi’s immediate admission into Sadc, arguing that it was politically unstable. Crucially, current events on the ground do not suggest any change of circumstances in Burundi. If anything, Burundi appears motivated more by the desire to seek political fortification from Sadc members. And, it seems, it is afraid of its militarily-superior neighbour, Rwanda, which it accuses of seeking to effect a regime change in Bujumbura.

Rwanda makes similar charges, accusing Burundi of giving sanctuary to rebels seeking to topple President Paul Kagame and his government in Kigali.

On 8 September 1997, the DRC hastily joined Sadc as it came under threat from rebels that were supported by Rwanda and Uganda. Sadc member states, Angola, Namibia and Zimbabwe, deployed troops and heavy artillery to shore up Laurent Kabila’s feeble army.

It appears that is the motivation for Burundi. Thus, its application to join Sadc lacks merit, and should be rejected.