Skip to main content Accessibility help
Hostname: page-component-768ffcd9cc-6vg6l Total loading time: 0.371 Render date: 2022-12-05T22:52:05.237Z Has data issue: true Feature Flags: { "useRatesEcommerce": false } hasContentIssue true

The African Union and coercive diplomacy: the case of Burundi

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  26 November 2018

Nina Wilén*
Peace Research Institute (PRIO) and Université Libre de Bruxelles (ULB), Avenue F.D. Roosevelt 39–41, 1050 Brussels, Belgium
Paul D. Williams*
Associate Professor, Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University, 1957 E Street, NW Washington, DC, 20052, USA


In December 2015, the African Union (AU) took the unprecedented step of threatening to use military force against the government of Burundi's wishes in order to protect civilians caught up in the country's intensifying domestic crisis. This article traces the background to this decision and analyses the effectiveness and credibility of the AU's use of coercive diplomacy as a tool of conflict management. After its usual range of conflict management tools failed to stem the Burundian crisis, the AU Commission and Peace and Security Council tried a new type of military compellence by invoking Article 4(h) of the Union's Constitutive Act. We argue that the threatened intervention never materialised because of (1) the Burundian government's astute diplomacy and (2) several African autocrats’ resistance to setting a precedent for future interventions where concerns about civilian protection might override state sovereignty.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2018 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



ACLED. 2015. ‘Update: Burundi Local Data on Recent Unrest’ (26 April–19 December 2015), <>, accessed 22.11.2017.,+accessed+22.11.2017.>Google Scholar
ACLED. 2016. ‘Country Report: Burundi Crisis Year One’ (26 April–25 April 2016), <>, accessed 7.5.2018.,+accessed+7.5.2018.>Google Scholar
African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR). 2015. Press release, ‘Fact-Finding Mission of the ACHPR to Burundi (7–13 December 2015)’, 14 December, <>, accessed 22.11.2017.,+accessed+22.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Allen-Ebrahimian, B. 2017. ‘How ballots are being used to delay the Congolese Election’, Foreign Policy, 12 October, <>, accessed 24.11.2017.,+accessed+24.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Amnesty International. 2015. Burundi: “My children are scared”: Burundi's deepening human rights crisis. Report AFR 16/3116/2015, 22 December.Google Scholar
Anderson, J. 2017. ‘Burundi's newest, biggest rebel group’, African Arguments, 3 October, <>, accessed 25.11.2017.,+accessed+25.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Apuuli, K.P. 2016. ‘Establishing the full operational capability of the East African Standby Force: challenges and opportunities’, Insight on Africa 8, 1: 117.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Art, R.J. & Cronin, P.M., eds. 2003. The United States and Coercive Diplomacy. Washington, DC: US Institute of Peace Press.Google Scholar
AU. 2006. Decision of the AU Assembly, Assembly/AU/Dec.127(VII), 2 July.Google Scholar
AU. 2014. ‘AU Peace and Security Commissioner concludes visit to Burundi’, Addis Ababa, 18 June.Google Scholar
AU. 2015a. Press release, ‘AU Commission Chairperson visits Burundi’, Addis Ababa, 26 March.Google Scholar
AU. 2015b. Press release, ‘Appointment of Mr. Ibrahima Fall of Senegal as the AU Special Representative for Great Lakes Region’, Addis Ababa, 3 June.Google Scholar
AU. 2015c. Communiqué, ‘The African Union reiterates the imperative need for dialogue and consensus for a lasting solution to the crisis in Burundi and announces that it will not observe the elections scheduled for 29 June 2015’, 28 June.Google Scholar
AU. 2015d. Press release, ‘The African Union reaffirms the imperative for dialogue and consensus in order to peacefully resolve the current crisis in Burundi. The AU ready to deploy human rights observers and military experts’, Addis Ababa, 8 July.Google Scholar
AU. 2015e. Press release, ‘The African Union reiterates its readiness to immediately deploy human rights observers and military experts to Burundi’, Addis Ababa, 18 July.Google Scholar
AU. 2016a. Press release, ‘Consultations between the AU Commission and Tanzania on the situation in Burundi’, Addis Ababa, 8 January.Google Scholar
AU. 2016b. Press release, ‘The AU appoints the high-level delegation to Burundi’, Addis Ababa, 4 February.Google Scholar
AU PSC. 2016. Communiqué, PSC/AHG/COMM.3(DLXXI), 29 January.Google Scholar
AU PSC. 2015a. Communiqué, PSC/PR/COMM.(DI), 28 April.Google Scholar
AU PSC. 2015b. Communiqué, PSC/PR/COMM(DVII), 14 May.Google Scholar
AU PSC. 2015c. Communiqué, PSC/PR/COMM.2(DXV), 13 June.Google Scholar
AU PSC. 2015d. Communiqué, PSC/PR/COMM.(DLI), 17 October.Google Scholar
AU PSC. 2015e. Communiqué, PSC/PR/COMM.(DLXV), 17 December.Google Scholar
Badimus, I.A. 2015. The African Union's Role in Peacekeeping. Basingstoke: Palgrave-Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
BBC News. 2015a. ‘Burundi crisis: Pierre Nkurunziza threatens to fight AU peacekeepers’, 30 December, <>, accessed 8.11.2017.,+accessed+8.11.2017.>Google Scholar
BBC News. 2015b. ‘Burundi's Nkurunziza wars of al-Shabab after coup fails’, 17 May, <>, accessed 15.11.2017.,+accessed+15.11.2017.>Google Scholar
BBC News. 2016. ‘Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni wins fifth term’. 20 February, <>, accessed 15.11.2017.,+accessed+15.11.2017.>Google Scholar
BBC News. 2017. ‘Rwanda election: President Paul Kagame wins by landslide’, 5 August, <>, accessed 19.11.2017.,+accessed+19.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Berhe, M.G. & de Waal, A.. 2015. Peace Missions in Africa: constraints, challenges and opportunities, Preliminary Report to the African Union. Boston, MA: World Peace Foundation. <>Google Scholar
Berhe, M.G. & de Waal, A.. 2016. African Politics, African Peace. Boston, MA: World Peace Foundation.Google Scholar
Boschoff, H., Vrey, W. & Rautenbach, G.. 2010. ‘The Burundi peace process: from civil war to conditional peace’. Institute for Security Studies, Monograph 171.Google Scholar
Boutellis, A. 2015. ‘United Nations Operation in Burundi (ONUB)’ in Koops, J. et al. , eds. The Oxford Handbook of United Nations Peacekeeping Operations. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 731–41.Google Scholar
Buchanan, E. 2015. ‘Burundi: Who are the armed rebels supported by the country's exiled dissidents?’ International Business Times, 21 June, <>, accessed 21.11.2017.,+accessed+21.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Burundi. 2015. Ministry of Foreign Affairs and International Cooperation, ‘Letter to AU Commission's president’, no. 204.01/17777/RE.2015.Google Scholar
Byman, D. & Waxman, M.. 2002. The Dynamics of Coercion: American foreign policy and the limits of military might. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
Coleman, K. & Williams, P.D.. 2017. Logistics Partnerships in Peace Operations. New York, NY: International Peace Institute.Google Scholar
Darkwa, L. 2017. ‘The African Standby Force: The African Union's tool for the maintenance of peace and security’, Contemporary Security Policy 38, 3: 471–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
De Coning, C., Gelot, L. & Karlsrud, J., eds. 2016. The Future of African Peace Operations. London: Zed Books.Google Scholar
Dersso, S. 2016. To Intervene or Not to Intervene? An inside view of the AU's decision-making on Article 4(h) and Burundi. World Peace Foundation, February, <>>Google Scholar
Dersso, S. 2017. ‘Defending constitutional rule as a peacemaking enterprise: the case of the AU's ban of unconstitutional changes of government’, International Peacekeeping 27, 4: 639–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
EASF. 2014. Special Report on the Development of the EASF and its Achievement of Full Operational Capability. Unpublished, December.Google Scholar
Engel, U. 2010. ‘Unconstitutional Changes of Government: new AU policies in defence of democracy’. Leipzig University, Working Paper Series No. 9.Google Scholar
Engel, U. 2013. ‘The changing role of the AU Commission in inter-African relations’, in Harbeson, J.W. & Rothchild, D. (eds), Africa in World Politic. Fifth edition. Boulder, CO: Westview, 186206.Google Scholar
Engel, U. & Gomes Porto, J., eds. 2010. Africa's New Peace and Security Architecture. Farnham: Ashgate.Google Scholar
Essa, A. 2015. ‘Burundi refugee crisis test Tanzania's refugee policy’, Al Jazeera, 25 May, <>, accessed 24.11.2017.,+accessed+24.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Franke, B. 2009. Security Cooperation in Africa. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner.Google Scholar
Fouchard, A. 2015. ‘Centrafrique: la mission de l'ONU ne veut pas d'un porte-parole burundais’, Le Monde Afrique, 16 December 2015, <>, accessed 15.11.2017.,+accessed+15.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Gelot, L., Gelot, L. & De Coning, C., eds. 2012. Supporting African Peace Operations. Oslo: NAI, Dag Hammarskold Foundation & NUPI.Google Scholar
George, A.L. 1991. Forceful Persuasion: coercive diplomacy as an alternative to war. Washington, DC: US Institute of Peace Press.Google Scholar
Haggis, C. 2009. The African Union and Intervention: the origins and implications of Article 4(h) of the 2001 Constitutive Act. Unpublished D.Phil. thesis, University of Oxford.Google Scholar
Hardt, H. 2014. Time to React: the efficiency of international organizations in crisis response. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Hardt, H. 2016. ‘From states to secretariats: delegation in the African Union Peace and Security Council’, African Security 9, 3: 161–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Havyarimana, M. 2015. ‘Burundi: AU Peacekeepers will violate sovereignty, say Burundi MPs’, The East African, 22 December, <>, accessed 15.11.2017.,+accessed+15.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Hurd, I. 2014. International Organizations: politics, law, practice. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
International Crisis Group (ICG). 2015. ‘Congo: is democratic change possible?’, Africa Report 225, 5 May, <>, accessed 24.11.2017.,+accessed+24.11.2017.>Google Scholar
International Crisis Group (ICG). 2017. ‘Burundi: the army in crisis’, Africa Report 247, 5 April, <>, accessed 15.11.2017.,+accessed+15.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Institute for Security Studies (ISS). 2015. Peace and Security Council Report. No.70, June.Google Scholar
Jennings, M. 2016. ‘Magufuli's reformist drive takes an autocratic turn in Tanzania’, World Politics Review, 24 October, <>, accessed 24.11.2017.,+accessed+24.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Kelley, K.J. 2015. ‘Burundi's US lobbyist says Rwanda aiding rebels’, Africa Review, 13 July, <>, accessed 21.11.2017.,+accessed+21.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Kendemeh, E. 2015. ‘Burundi: regional leaders for Burundi post-election Union Government’, 8 July, <>, accessed 24.11.2017.,+accessed+24.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Kenya Today. 2015. ‘Rwanda's President Kagame tells Burundi's Nkurunziza to step down’, 11 May, <>, accessed 19.11.2017.,+accessed+19.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Kuwali, D. & Viljoen, F., eds. 2014. Africa and the Responsibility to Protect. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
Levitt, J.I. 2003. ‘The Peace and Security Council of the African Union: the known unknowns’, Transnational Law and Contemporary Problems 13: 109–37.Google Scholar
Madirisha, E. 2016. ‘MAPROBU, viendra viendra pas?’, IWACU Burundi, 12 January, <>, accessed 15.11.2017.,+accessed+15.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Makinda, S. & Okumu, W.. 2008. [2015, Second edition] The African Union. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
Mbazutumima, A., Bigirimana, C., Madirisha, E., Shaka, C., Hakizimana, D., Nkuruziza, L. & Ngendakumana, P.. 2015. ‘Bujumbura s'oppose à l'envoie des troupes de l'Union africaine’, IWACU Burundi, <>, accessed 15.11.2017.,+accessed+15.11.2017.>Google Scholar
McVeigh, T. 2015. ‘Rwanda votes to give President Paul Kagame right to rule until 2034’, The Guardian, 20 December, <>, accessed 20.11.2017.,+accessed+20.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Murithi, T. 2005. The African Union. Farnham: Ashgate.Google Scholar
Murithi, T. & Lulie, H., eds. 2013. The African Union Peace and Security Council: a five-year appraisal. Pretoria: ISS Monograph No. 187.Google Scholar
Mwangonde, H. 2015. ‘Dar opposes AU force in Burundi’, The Citizen, 23 December, <>>Google Scholar
Nantulya, P. 2017. ‘The costs of regional paralysis in the face of the crisis in Burundi’, Africa Center for Strategic Studies, 24 August, <>, accessed 10.11.2017.,+accessed+10.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Nathan, L. 2017. A Survey of Mediation in African Coups. African Peacebuilding Network Working Paper No. 15.Google Scholar
Nathan, L. et al. 2015. African Peace and Security Architecture (APSA) 2014 Assessment Study. Unpublished final report, 16 April.Google Scholar
New Vision. 2016. ‘Deploying AU force without Burundi approval ‘unimaginable’: top AU official’, 31 January, <>, accessed 20.11.2017.,+accessed+20.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Nimubona, D. 2015. ‘Tanzania's Kikwete says Burundi should heed President term limit’, Bloomberg Business, 20 March, <>, accessed 24.11.2017.,+accessed+24.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Okeke, J.M. & Williams, P.D., eds. 2017. Protecting Civilians in African Union Peace Support Operations. South Africa: ACCORD.Google Scholar
Omorogbe, E.Y. 2011. ‘A club of incumbents? The African Union and Coups d'État’, Vanderbilt Journal of Transnational Law 4: 123–54.Google Scholar
Reuters. 2015. ‘U.S. suspends Burundi peacekeeping training over protests’, <>, accessed 24.11.2017.,+accessed+24.11.2017.>Google Scholar
RFI. 2015. ‘Spéculations sur l'absence de Kagame au sommet de Dar es Salaam’, 1 June, <>, accessed 20.11.2017.,+accessed+20.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Roberts, A. 2001. ‘The so-called right of humanitarian intervention’, Yearbook of International Humanitarian Law, Vol. 3 (Summer).Google Scholar
Schelling, T. 1966. Arms and Influence. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
Sturman, K. & Hayatou, A.. 2010. ‘The Peace and Security Council of the African Union’, in Engel, & Porto, Gomes, eds. Africa's New Peace and Security Architecture, 5775.Google Scholar
The Insider. 2015. ‘EAC ministers: Nkurunziza 3rd term unconstitutional’, 15 May, <>, accessed 13.11.2017.,+accessed+13.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Tieku, T. 2011. ‘The evolution and role of AU Commission and Africrats: drivers of Africa's regionalism’, in Grant, A., Cornelissen, S. & Shaw, T., eds. The Research Companion to Regionalisms. Farnham: Ashgate.Google Scholar
Ubwani, Z. 2015. ‘Mahiga calls for talks to end Burundi bloodshed’, The Citizen, 20 December, <>>Google Scholar
Ubwani, Z. 2016. ‘Bring back our soldiers Burundian activist begs’, The Citizen, 22 January, <>, accessed 15.11.2017.,+accessed+15.11.2017.>Google Scholar
UN. 2016. ‘Secretary-General's remarks to the AU Peace and Security Council’, 29 January, <'s-remarks-african-union-peace-and-security-council>, accessed 22.11.2017.,+accessed+22.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Vandeginste, S. 2016. ‘Legal loopholes and the politics of executive term limits: insights from Burundi’, Africa Spectrum 2: 3963.Google Scholar
Vines, A. 2013. ‘A decade of African peace and security architecture’, International Affairs 89, 1: 89109.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wilén, N. 2012. Justifying Interventions in Africa: (de)stabilizing sovereignty in Liberia, Burundi and the Congo, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wilén, N. 2015. ‘Burundi crisis: the military's central role’, Centre for Security Governance, 16 May, <>, accessed 7.5.2018.,+accessed+7.5.2018.>Google Scholar
Wilén, N. 2016a. ‘The rationales behind the EAC Members’ response to the Burundi crisis’, Georgetown Journal of International Affairs Winter/Spring, 1: 6978.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wilén, N. 2016b. ‘African Union intervention could do more harm than good in Burundi’, World Politics Review, 5 January, <>, accessed 19.11.2017.,+accessed+19.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Wilén, N., Ambrosetti, D. & Birantamije, G.. 2015. ‘Sending peacekeepers abroad, sharing power at home: Burundi in Somalia’, Journal of Eastern African Studies 9, 2: 307–25.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Wilén, N., Birantamije, G. & Ambrosetti, D.. 2018. ‘The Burundian army's trajectory to professionalization and depoliticization, and back again’, Journal of Eastern African Studies 12, 1: 120–35.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Williams, P.D. 2007. ‘From non-intervention to non-indifference: the origins and development of the African Union's security culture’, African Affairs 106: 253–79.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Williams, P.D. 2009. ‘The Peace and Security Council of the African Union: evaluating an embryonic international institution’, Journal of Modern African Studies 47, 4: 603–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Williams, P.D. 2011. The African Union's Conflict Management Capabilities. New York, NY: Council on Foreign Relations Working Paper.Google Scholar
Williams, P.D. 2013. Peace Operations in Africa: lessons learned since 2000. Africa Security Brief No. 25. Washington, DC: Africa Center for Strategic Studies.Google Scholar
Williams, P.D. 2014. ‘Reflections on the evolving African peace and security architecture’, African Security 7, 3: 147–62.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Williams, P.D. 2015. ‘Special Report: The African Union's coercive diplomacy in Burundi’, IPI Global Observatory, 18 December, <>, accessed 20.11.2017.,+accessed+20.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Williams, P.D. 2016. ‘Special Report, Part 2: The AU's less coercive diplomacy on Burundi’, IPI Global Observatory, 16 February, <>, accessed 20.11.2017.,+accessed+20.11.2017.>Google Scholar
Williams, P.D. 2017a. ‘A new African model of coercion? Assessing the ECOWAS mission in the Gambia’, IPI Global Observatory, 16 March, <>..>Google Scholar
Williams, P.D. 2017b. UN Support for Regional Peace Operations: lessons from UNSOA. New York, NY: International Peace Institute.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Williams, P.D. & Boutellis, A.. 2014. ‘Partnership peacekeeping: challenges and opportunities in the United Nations–African Union Relationship’, African Affairs 113: 254–78.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
Williams, P.D. & Dersso, S.. 2015. Saving Strangers and Neighbours: advancing UN-AU cooperation on peace operations. New York, NY: International Peace Institute.Google Scholar
Senior AU official, 5 January 2016, Int.Google Scholar
AU official, 4 February 2016, Int.Google Scholar
Senior AU official, 5 January 2016, Int.Google Scholar
AU official, 4 February 2016, Int.Google Scholar
Cited by

Save article to Kindle

To save this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about saving to your Kindle.

Note you can select to save to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be saved to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

The African Union and coercive diplomacy: the case of Burundi
Available formats

Save article to Dropbox

To save this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Dropbox account. Find out more about saving content to Dropbox.

The African Union and coercive diplomacy: the case of Burundi
Available formats

Save article to Google Drive

To save this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you used this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your Google Drive account. Find out more about saving content to Google Drive.

The African Union and coercive diplomacy: the case of Burundi
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Please enter your response.

Your details

Please enter a valid email address.

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *