The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) seems destined to spend a bit more time in Burundi.
The SANDF currently has 973 personnel in the country as part of an African Union Special Task Force (AUSTF). SA has had troops in the troubled Great Lakes state since late in 2001 when then-peace facilitator Nelson Mandela volunteered the SANDF as a very important person (VIP) protection detail for returning insurgent leaders who feared assassination.
By May 2004, when a semblance of peace had been achieved, the mission became a United Nations (UN) undertaking. The UN wound up the mission on 31 December 2006.
“Since the arrival of ONUB in 2004, the central African country has enjoyed its first democratic elections in 12 years, the installation of a national Government and the disarmament and demobilization of nearly 22 000 combatants,” the UNJ said in a media release at the time.
The UN converted its ONUB mission into a Peacebuilding Commission that would “support progress” and its Peacebuilding Fund allocated $25 million “to promote good governance, strengthen the rule of law and ensure community recovery.”
SA, at the behest of the AU, remained behind. The General Officer Commanding (GOC) the Joint Operations Division`s Joint Operational Headquarters, Major General Barney Hlatshwayo, says SA is “there first and foremost because of a bilateral agreement with the AU.” He adds the peace process in Burundi driven by a regional peace initiative. “There is a mandate and a time line.
“In terms of the timeline we are currently approaching the end-state. But equally one must be aware of nature of that process… It is dynamic, we all know up to now FNL (National Liberation Front, one of a raft of insurgent groups) has not played its part, though of late they are now participating in all processes.”
Hlatshwayo adds he is boosting the SA contingent by a further 100, “the aim is to have enough capacity to make sure that there is no excuse on the part of parties not to comply with peace agreement.”
The general says a withdrawal plan has been developed and awaits political instruction to go ahead. “We should be withdrawing very soon, but it should be after the completion of the mission.
Current AU Burundi peace facilitator and SA defence minister Charles Nqakula in December told the UN Security Council that the SANDF would wind up operations at the end of January and be home by the end of March. “The period from 1 to 31 January will be used as a ‘mop-up” phase`,” Nqakula said according to a UNSC transcript of the briefing. The facilitation team will scale down its operations and the AUSTF will “begin its withdrawal, which should be completed by the end of March, when the facilitation will also close down.”
This seems to longer to be the case. But Hlatshwayo does not seeing the mission ending there. “Even if the FNL integrates, my experience, what you see in Congo, what you see in Central African Republic [where the SA Military Assistance and Training Team is deployed] could be the next possibility, but it is far better to look at general military assistance than full-blown battalion group and other assets,” he says.
Burundi was SA`s first major peacekeeping deployment – the first was in 1999. It also gave SA its first UN force commander, then-Major General Derrick Mgwebi, currently the SANDF`s chief of human resources.