Julia Grauvogel looks at the sanction campaign against Burundi in the 1990s and asks what it can tell us about prospects for international intervention today. Julia is a Research Fellow at GIGA. Her research on sanctions has recently been published in the Journal of Modern African Studies.
When the Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he would be standing for another term in power on 25 April, people took the streets. Opposition parties and civil society organizations argue that Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term violates the constitution and the 2000 Arusha Peace Agreement. So far, more than 70 people have been killed in clashes between the police and the demonstrators and more than 120,000 have fled to neighboring countries.
Diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis have intensified after a failed coup d’état that occurred in mid May. The African Union (AU) and its regional counterpart, the East African Community (EAC), condemned the attempt to seize power through military means, but also called on all actors to end violence against civilians. Following appeals by the European Union, the United States, the EAC and the AU to delay the polls, the presidential elections have been postponed to 15 July. Meanwhile, a number of Western donor countries have suspended vital funding for the elections as well as their security cooperation and announced cuts to development aid. In addition, both the US and the EU have threatened targeted sanctions against those involved in the repression of protestors.
It is not the first time that Burundi has faced (the threat of) sanctions. After the military takeover of former President Pierre Buyoya in 1996, which dragged the country even deeper into civil war, neighboring countries imposed a comprehensive trade embargo on the small, land-locked country. The current situation differs from the developments two decades ago in many respects, not least the more active involvement of the international community compared to the regional crisis-management of the 1990s, and the distinctively political nature of the present conflict. Nevertheless, an historical analysis of the 1990s – which I provided in a recent article for the Journal of Modern African Studies – can help us to appreciate how international pressure has affected domestic dynamics of contention in the past, and how they may function in the future.
The sanctions against Burundi (1996-1999) were characterized by two seemingly contradictory developments: The regime largely succeeded in mitigating the economic constraints that sanctions brought with them, but it eventually conceded to the political demands of those imposing said sanctions. Given Burundi’s economic and geopolitical vulnerability, regional actors and the international community had expected to quickly force Buyoya to make political concessions, but his government managed to endure. In addition to sanction-busting activities, the regime launched a vocal campaign against the trade restrictions. This carefully crafted diplomatic effort not only contributed to the granting of humanitarian exemptions, it also helped to re-engage the donor community at a time when the Great Lakes Regional Peace Initiative on Burundi still considered sanctions an important tool to exert pressure on Buyoya. These developments highlight the manifold ways in which restrictive measures can be circumvented, and the dangers of un-coordinated international crisis management – a factor that has once again become visible in the recent disagreement among various regional and international actors about how long the elections should be postponed.
On the other hand, Buyoya eventually engaged in the kind of regionally-led unconditional negotiations with all parties to the conflict that he had initially rejected. In line with traditional punishment theory, which posits that costly sanctions are more likely to induce a target to change its policies, scholars and contemporary witnesses alike attributed Buyoya’s concessions to the embargo’s severe financial consequences. However, the fact that the regime agreed to the Arusha peace process when the sanctions’ economic impact withered casts doubt upon this interpretation. Instead, I propose a novel framework for studying the signaling dimension of sanctions that draws on the notion of argumentative self-entrapment. When states face international demands to act in line with certain norms, many react by ‘talking the talk’, for instance by discursively complying with an internationally promoted discourse of democratic governance. Such rhetoric may translate into profound concessions over time when governments are measured against their tactical commitments, particularly when opposition groups are motivated by these perceived successes. In the case of Burundi, the regime’s anti-sanctions campaign, which denounced sanctions as an intervention that undermined the regime’s efforts to negotiate, backfired. Based on 34 semi-structured interviews with diplomats, policy-makers, military personnel and journalists, as well as additional documents, I show how the Buyoya administration had increasing difficulty in justifying its reluctance to engage in the revitalization of the Arusha negotiations, given its vocal diplomatic campaign.
Applying these insights to the current situation, an exclusive focus on how Nkuruziza can be financially coerced into a meaningful dialogue with the country’s opposition parties and civil society through the cutting of aid and the suspension of election financing appears insufficient. Instead, signals that delegitimize the regime, such as the withdrawal of the EU election observation mission and the UN declaration that the parliamentary elections were neither free nor credible, may play a crucial role in domestic political struggles, not least because the opposition can continuously refer to such international signals of disapproval to keep pressure on the incumbent regime.