South Africa's President Jacob Zuma has been active on the foreign policy front in the last few weeks – with varying degrees of success. At the end of last month he travelled to Burundi to head a delegation of heads of state mandated by the African Union (AU), and this past week he visited Nigeria to address a joint sitting of Parliament in Abuja – a rare event that last occurred when former president Bill Clinton addressed a joint sitting in 2000.
Has this helped to raise his profile at home and abroad?
The embattled Zuma – who faces mounting criticism for his domestic faux pas – certainly knows that unpopular leaders often resort to foreign policy interventions to boost their egos and media profiles. Many a president has intervened militarily in a conflict or made peace deals beyond their borders to boost opinion polls. So for Zuma, these foreign trips could be a feather in his cap. Unfortunately, the visit to strife-torn Bujumbura from 25 to 27 February had mixed results, to say the least.
There have been many calls for South Africa to intervene in the Burundi crisis given its past mediation in Burundi's civil war. Stephanie Wolters, Head of the Conflict Prevention and Risk Analysis division of the Institute for Security Studies said: ‘South Africa has an opportunity and, many would say, a historical responsibility to champion an initiative that aims to prevent worse bloodshed in both Burundi and the Great Lakes region’.
Is this why Zuma offered to lead the delegation? At least one of the heads of state in the five-member high-level panel to Burundi – Gabon’s President Ali Bongo – left before the talks really started; and Zuma’s statements at the meeting were in clear contrast to what the AU believes to have been the true outcomes of the talks. Opposition leaders were also disappointed by Zuma’s stance – and it seems that on this score, South Africa and Zuma are not on the same page as AU Commission Chairperson Nkosazana Dlamini Zuma, who is, of course, also Zuma’s former wife.
The AU's high-level panel to Burundi was the result of a lengthy debate among leaders at the AU Summit in January this year, where it was decided to put on hold a 5 000-strong AU intervention force to Burundi. Sending the high-level panel was seen as a compromise decision to show that the AU hasn't completely dropped the ball.
In a communiqué that followed the heads of state of the Peace and Security Council meeting on 29 January 2016, the council stressed that the high-level panel is mandated to ‘hold consultations on the inclusive Inter-Burundian Dialogue’. In a subsequent press release by the Commission, it states, however, that the planned force to Burundi – the African Prevention and Protection for to Burundi (MAPROBU) – will also be part of the mandate.
The delegation – which also included Senegal's President Macky Sall, Mauritania's President Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz and Ethiopia's Prime Minister Hailemariam Desalegn – held talks with some of the few opposition parties left in Bujumbura, and then conducted a four-hour meeting with President Pierre Nkurunziza.
A key question is whether Zuma is able to serve as a credible mediator in Burundi. He knows Burundi and its various role players well, having served as a mediator in the 2000s, before the final Arusha agreements were signed in 2005. At the time, he was South Africa’s deputy president. He worked alongside former president Nelson Mandela, who co-mediated the first Arusha agreement in 2000 together with Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere.
But South Africa’s diplomatic clout is a far cry from what it was a decade or so ago. Nelson Mandela served as an inspiration to war-torn countries. ‘Do not fail us, do not fail the world. But above all, do not fail yourself and your people. Your country has bled enough. It and its people now deserve enduring peace,’ he said during a speech to Burundians in 2003. No one can claim to have Mandela's stature or influence.
During Zuma’s latest visit, there were no eloquent appeals for reconciliation and peace – at least not in the official communiqués released to the media.
Instead, he seemed to have taken an about-turn from his statements made in early 2015, that it would be ‘appropriate’ for President Pierre Nkurunziza to step down, to save his country from returning to war. In Bujumbura, Zuma appealed to all parties to abide by the Constitutional Court ruling that approved Nkurunziza’s third-term bid.
All emphasis is now on ‘inclusive dialogue’ – talks that have been mooted for months already. Zuma said in his statement that the government should talk to ‘all the important players’.
The opposition feared this could interpreted as be an endorsement of the government’s stance to exclude the main opposition coalition in exile – the Council for the Observance of the Constitution, Human Rights and the Arusha Peace Agreement.
In the AU statement released a few days after the visit, the AU Commission was at pains to emphasise that ‘all stakeholders, without prior conditions’ should take part in the talks. The AU also emphasised adherence to the Arusha Accords. These accords clearly stipulate that Burundian presidents should only serve two terms. Respect for the Arusha Accords has been the mantra of the AU Commission and its chairperson, Dlamini Zuma, throughout the Burundian crisis. No mention was made of MAPROBU.
According to the Burundian opposition, Zuma's trip to Burundi was seen as an endorsement of Nkurunziza, which undermines Zuma’s role as neutral peacemaker. South Africa’s commitment to facilitating peace in Burundi is based on its own analysis of the seriousness of the situation. But Zuma and South Africa seem to be underplaying the gravity of the situation in Burundi; a small landlocked country with very little strategic interest. During the January summit in Addis Ababa, a South African diplomat told ISS Today that there were ‘far greater crises’ that the AU should focus on.
Veteran Great Lakes specialist Colette Braeckman commented on the visit by Zuma and his fellow leaders by saying, ‘Clearly Nkurunziza doesn’t have to worry about pressure from the international community and even less from the AU’.
Mystery also surrounds the fact that Zuma spent an extra day in Bujumbura, where he was accompanied by a large military contingent. Officially, it was reported that his plane was unable take off when he planned to leave on 26 February, but local media reports say the plane was ready to fly, and that there was another plane on standby.
Meanwhile, the jury is still out whether Zuma’s visit to Nigeria has been a foreign policy coup for the president and for South Africa. Certainly, many calls have been made for Africa’s big powers to work together to move the continent forward, as was the case when former presidents Thabo Mbeki and Olusegun Obasanjo were still in power. Official statements from the South African presidency suggest that the visit ‘takes relations to a higher level’, which is to be encouraged.
Zuma was accompanied by a large delegation, which included the ministers of Home Affairs, Agriculture, Defence and International Relations and Cooperation. Rumours that South Africa will send special forces to help in the fight against Boko Haram have raised quite some controversy. So far, South African officials have denied it. Specialists also told Daily Maverick that this could lead to revenge attacks on South African soil.
The Nigerian media, usually quite frank in its criticism of South Africa and South African companies doing business in South Africa, was lukewarm about the visit. Professor Bola Akinterinwa, Director-General of the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs, told Channels TV that Zuma’s visit aimed to ‘seek more avenues and opportunities for the people of South Africa to consolidate and increase their gains in Nigeria’ and to ‘change the perceptions of South Africa in Nigeria’.
One state visit is perhaps not enough to achieve this, but for Zuma it was a good news story that was beamed back home. While the Burundi visit was certainly a missed opportunity, the photographs of Zuma and Nigeria’s Muhammadu Buhari sent out a positive message: Zuma is still the leader of one of Africa’s important nations and he is working to build good relations on the continent.
Writtn by Liesl Louw-Vaudran, ISS Consultant
Republished with permission from ISS Africa