As I thought about the recent violence in the Central African nation of Burundi, I recalled a trip I made there three years ago. I realized that something I’d seen in 2012 was a key to why the coup attempt in May by a group of army officers had failed.
The capital city, Bujumbura, is bordered by hills that roll down toward Lake Tanganyika. At first sight, the lake, which is estimated to be the second largest freshwater body in the world, is stunningly beautiful. But the illusion of a paradise soon ended when I visited the beaches. They were littered with garbage, the shoreline so polluted that fishermen had to venture far from shore to catch fish.
A short drive away, though, is one of the exclusive resorts you’d expect to find, given the setting: the Hotel Club du Lac Tanganyika. During my visit, at least, few of the guests were tourists. Instead, the hotel was bustling with American and European military advisers.
The reason these trainers were in town was because Burundi was supplying troops to the African Union’s peacekeeping force in Somalia, known by its acronym, Amisom. In 2007, an African Union resolution established the Somalia mission. Uganda, always gung-ho in military matters, was the first to send in forces. Then, to the surprise of many, Burundi contributed more than 5,000 soldiers.
It’s true that Burundi also holds about 6 percent of the world’s nickel reserves, but other than that, in cold strategic terms, the country had little continental or international significance. But Burundi’s action over Amisom caught the attention of other African Union members. All of a sudden, the country had seats at the international high tables where security in the Horn of Africa was under discussion.
Peacekeeping in Somalia quickly became one of Burundi’s most important economic activities. The monthly take-home pay of a private in the Burundian Army was about $20. But if he served in the internationally funded Amisom force, the same soldier was paid $750.
With their Amisom wages, the thousands of Burundian soldiers soon made up a large part of the country’s new middle class. Their wealth also helped to create a boom in the housing market around Bujumbura.
This prosperity came under threat, however, when President Pierre Nkurunziza announced in April that he would run for a third term. Critics and opposition politicians cried foul, arguing that this move broke the Constitution’s two-term limit for the presidency. Demonstrators clashed with police, and with police officers using live fire to disperse protesters, as many as 30 people have been reported killed.
Amid the violence, the African Union delayed the next deployment of Burundi troops — a rebuke that would have been unthinkable three years ago. Last month’s coup attempt against Mr. Nkurunziza was thus not primarily because he was clinging to power, but because his actions had jeopardized the military’s most lucrative prize — its place in the Somalia peacekeeping operation.
The African Union decision also drew a warning from the State Department that American aid to Burundi could be suspended. The African Union thus canceled what was the principal means by which elements of the military leadership outside Mr. Nkurunziza’s circle of patronage nevertheless enjoyed institutional benefits.
But there was probably more to the question of why the African Union would dare to delay the Burundian troop deployment. It confirms the fact that Burundi’s status has diminished since 2012 for reasons beyond the control of anyone in Bujumbura, which are more to do with a reconfiguration of continental politics.
Developments in two of Africa’s largest and most influential nations, Egypt and Nigeria, have calmed the nerves of many who worried that the continent was on the verge of dangerous disorder. But this peace dividend has rebounded badly for once-important bit players like Burundi, which have seen their value shrink.
In Egypt, the 2013 ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated president, Mohamed Morsi, led to the election as president last year of the former military chief Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Though autocratic, Mr. Sisi has restored security and stability and begun a series of ambitious economic projects.
In Nigeria, which earlier in the year appeared on the brink of losing control of large sections of territory to the Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram, there has been a remarkable turnaround. First, a combined regional force routed the group and recaptured territory. Then, the general election in March produced an unexpectedly positive result.
For the first time in Nigeria’s history, there was a democratic transition from one elected leader to another when the opposition candidate, Muhammadu Buhari, defeated the incumbent president, Goodluck Jonathan. Now sworn in, Mr. Buhari has the reputation from his past as a military leader for being a disciplinarian who is tough on corruption.
Other developments have also reduced Burundi’s regional significance. In Somalia, Kenya’s military intervention, together with the return of Ethiopia as a powerful contributor to the African Union peacekeeping force, have helped inflict heavy losses on Shabab militants. In addition, American airstrikes, particularly in South Sudan, have virtually eliminated a whole layer of the Islamists’ leadership.
So the calculations of risk on the continent have changed significantly; the geopolitical board game has been rearranged. No longer a basket case, Somalia now possesses a credible military that could supplant Burundi’s contribution to the African Union. A small country like Burundi with little strategic leverage can’t get away with internal bad behavior.
Mr. Nkurunziza’s power grab has provoked a response that wiped away many of the modest gains the country had made over the last 10 years. The leader may have survived a coup attempt, but with the June elections now postponed, Burundi faces a greater test of its fragile democracy.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is the editor of The Mail and Guardian Africa and a contributing opinion writer.