Insecurity, wrangles could cost Burundi role of EAC chair

The prevailing insecurity and uncertainty in Burundi following its controversial July elections could cost it the chairmanship of the East African Community, which comes up for rotation at the end of this month.

It is also Burundi’s turn to nominate a citizen to the position of secretary-general when Richard Sezibera’s term ends in April 2016.

The chair, currently held by Tanzania’s former president Jakaya Kikwete, is supposed to go to Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza at the Heads of State Summit later this month. 

However, officials were not even sure President Nkurunziza would travel to the summit in Arusha, Tanzania. The last time he left the country to attend an EAC meeting in Tanzania, soldiers attempted to overthrow his government.

Under the EAC Treaty, the EAC chairmanship cannot be handed over to a country in the absence of a sitting president and, should President Nkurunziza fail to turn up for the summit, Tanzania cannot hand over to Burundi.

In such a situation, the Heads of State Summit could decide to give the chair to Rwanda, like they gave it to Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta in November 2013.

An official at the EAC Secretariat said such an eventuality would cause complications, given the bad blood between Rwanda and Burundi.

According to Burundi’s EAC Minister Léontine Nzeyimana, her country is ready to take over the chair of the community.

“We have done this before and we are ready to do it again,” said Ms Nzeyimana.

READ: Burundi crisis poses ‘devastating’ risk for region – AU

ALSO READ: UN Security Council to discuss Burundi crisis Monday – France

She, however, said that due to security reasons, she could not confirm if President Nkurunzinza would attend the Heads of State Summit.

“If the president does not attend, then we expect that Tanzania will hold it for us until we are ready, just as Kenya did for Tanzania when their president travelled for treatment abroad,” she said.

But, even if President Nkurunziza does manage to attend the Heads of State Summit, experts are questioning his suitability for the chairmanship and the wisdom of having a Burundi national as secretary-general.

An official at the  EAC said that Kenya was already gearing up for the secretary-general’s position.

“The Treaty (Article 6) is clear on the matters of governance, democracy and transparency. Burundi’s status on this is questionable, especially with what is happening there now,” said the source.

He expressed fears that if the role was given to Burundi, the Community could lag behind on development programmes as donors, many of whom have frozen aid to Burundi, may withhold funding.

It is also likely that the EAC presidents could leave it to Tanzania to extend its chairmanship role under President John Magufuli, for fear of a threat of withdrawal of support from the donor community — the biggest source of funding to the EAC budget.

“At the moment no one is convinced that Burundi can hold the two posts with their current status after the elections,” said the  source at the EAC Secretariat.

He said the Community’s financial status would be at stake if this role went to Burundi.

“It is likely that the donor funding to the Community will either stop or be reduced. No donor at the moment wants to associate with Burundi following the aftermath of the elections,” he said.

A source said it would be a complicated situation if Rwanda presses to take over from Tanzania because then the presidents will have to make a decision that could have a negative impact either way.

“If President Paul Kagame asks to take over, then Kenya for example will have no option but to support it if it is lobbying to take over the secretary-general’s position. And Burundi at this moment will not agree to Rwanda becoming the EAC chair with their current sour relationship,” said the source.

According to Ms Nzeyimana, the matter of whether the country will take over from Dr Sezibera, is being handled at a “higher level” but said they are in the process of appointing their candidate for the position.

Burundi has the biggest financial deficit in the EAC budget, having not cleared its contribution for the 20142015 year and not having contributed to the 20152016 EAC budget either.

The UN has warned that Burundi risks sliding back into civil war after a dramatic rise in killings, arrests and detentions, with over 200,000 refugees fleeing to neighbouring countries.

On October 30, US President Barack Obama announced that Burundi will be ejected from he Africa Growth and Opportunity Act – a pact offering African nations much-desired US market access.

In a notification to Congress, President Obama said he had taken the step in response to a “continuing crackdown on opposition members, which has included assassinations, extra-judicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and torture.” The measure will take effect in January.

While Burundi’s exports to the US are minimal, any disruption would be significant for an economy already forecast by the International Monetary Fund to contract by 7.2 per cent this year.

The European Union, a major trading partner and aid donor to the country, has threatened sanctions over rights violations.

Suspension of meetings

Meanwhile, the EAC Secretariat has suspended meetings that were to be held in Burundi following an incident in which Dr Sezibera was roughed up during a session called to resolve the country’s political crisis.

Dr Sezibera told The EastAfrican the meetings have been temporarily suspended until the EAC Council of Ministers considers the incident and other issues.

On October 28, Dr Sezibera was roughed up by security guards while in the company of Uganda Defence Minister Crispus Kayonga.

“The EAC has subsequently lodged a formal protest with the government of Burundi,” Dr Sezibera said in an e-mail response to queries on the incident from The EastAfrican.

While Burundi authorities also describe the incident as “unfortunate,” they accuse Dr Sezibera of breaching protocol by forcing himself into a bilateral meeting between Uganda and the Burundi Senate.

Dr Sezibera denies this, saying he was part of the EAC mediation backed by the Secretariat, adding, “My visit was both official and known. I was informed by some officials that I was blocked from the meeting because I am Rwandan if this is true, it would be extremely unfortunate.”

Sources at the EAC secretariat said even before the incident in Bujumbura, the friction between Burundi and Rwanda has been palpable and is undermining the running of Community projects.

“At the moment, for example, if an EAC meeting or events is organised in Rwanda, Burundi does not attend and if the same is held in Bujumbura, Rwanda doesn’t attend. This means that no decision can be made in the absence of the other, causing delays,” said the source.

Abubakar Ogle, Kenya’s representative to the East African Legislative Assembly, said no oversight committee meeting has taken place in Burundi since the election period.