SA quietly winds up Burundi peace mission


South Africa has quietly wrapped up its eight year peacekeeping mission to Burundi – Operation Curriculum – by repatriating the last contingent deployed in Bujumbura just before New Year.

The last troops returned December 29. 

The mission, that has cost SA about R1.5 billion over the last five financial years, was deployed in some haste in September 2001 at the behest of then-peace facilitator Nelson Mandela to support what Department of Defence spokesman Sam Mkhwanazi calls a “somewhat shaky ceasefire agreement clinched in Arusha, Tanzania, between the then-warring parties.

The South African National Defence Force deployed 701 personnel to provide static and close protection to returning political leaders of the main protagonists, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Force for Democracy (CNDD-FDD) led by Pierre Nkurunziza (current President of Burundi) and the Hutu Front for Democracy (FRODEBU) led by Domitien Ndayizeye respectively.

In time, as the shaky truce held and firmed, the SA contingent was joined by troops from Ethiopia and Mozambique and the force was renamed the African Union Mission In Burundi (AMIB) in April 2003, tasked with providing security for the cantonment of combatants and to assist the demobilisation, disarmament and in the reintegration process of the various armed groups.
“However, troop presence under an AU mandate and authority did not automatically guarantee an immediate ceasefire. Burundi continued to be volatile as sporadic attacks continued in the capital, Bujumbura, leaving the Department of Defence with little option but to secure Cabinet approval to increase the SANDF’s force levels to one thousand six hundred (1600),” Mkhwanazi notes in background note on the deployment made available to defenceWeb.
“The SANDF’s efforts assisted in laying the foundation for political dialogue, restored a semblance of peace, instilled hope and ushered a new beginning to the people of Burundi to build their country,” Mkhwanazi adds.

In February 2004 then-UN Secretary General, Kofi Annan sent a multi-disciplinary assessment mission to Burundi to investigate how the UN might provide the most efficient support for the full implementation of the Arusha Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation in Burundi. The UN Security Council subsequently adopted Resolution 1545 authorising the deployment of the United Nations Operations In Burundi (ONUB) from June 2004 consisting of 5400 troops, 168 military observers, 97 police, 316 civilian staff, 156 volunteers and 383 local civilian support personnel.

Major General Derrick Mgwebi was appointed Force Commander, marking this as the first UN mission to be commanded by a South African. Troop contributing countries included, China, Bangladesh, Mali, Ghana, Guatemala, Jordan Nigeria, Russia, Serbia and Montenegro, Nepal, Netherlands, Malawi, Malaysia, Portugal, Peru and the Philippines.

ONUB completed its mission in December 2006. However, tension still hovered over Burundi since the PALIPEHUTU-FNL had not participated in the democratic elections that ushered in President Nkurunziza’s government. The security and political situation seemed precarious, Mkhwanazi notes and the South African government resolved that the SANDF should remain in Burundi while efforts continued to persuade the PALIPEHUTU-FNL to return to Burundi and be part of an evolving peaceful political process.

The SA force the became the AU Special Task Force in Burundi. In December 2008 then-defence minister Charles Nqakula, in his role as facilitator of the Burundi peace process told the UNSC that the SANDF deployment would wind up by March 31,2009. This was then postponed to August when President Jacob Zuma was scheduled to officiate a lowering-of-the-flag ceremony at SA`s “Camp Modderfontein” in Bujumbura on August 8. But days before the event the ceremony was postponed to a date in November. No reason was given for the delay. By then the force level had fallen from 973 in February to 417.

Pic: SANDF peacekeepers on patrol in Burundi.

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