A demonstrator raises her hands in the air as she faces soldiers in the Musaga neighborhood of Bujumbura, Burundi. The unit temporarily withdrew. The army has deployed throughout the town as hundreds return to the streets Monday to protest the president’s decision to seek a third term in office. (Jerome Delay/AP)

Is a fresh post-conflict state really the right candidate to receive international military training and support? Burundi is the second largest troop contributing country to the African Union’s Mission in Somalia, (AMISOM), which hosts five rotating Burundian battalions, equivalent of more than 5,000 troops on an all-around year basis. It became involved in peace operations allegedly by coincidence, as Ethiopian troops pulled out troops and AMISOM needed a new contributor in 2007. Burundi at the time was not only in the midst of an internal political crisis, but also in a fragile security situation with South African troops on the ground to supervise the ceasefire agreement with the last (Hutu) rebel group FNL. In addition, the freshly minted Burundian army, composed by former government soldiers and rebel forces, was taking part in an extensive security sector reform, largely financed by external partners, including Belgium and France.

From the Burundian side the decision to send parts of its army abroad at this moment may at first appear strange. In our 2015 article “Sending Peacekeepers Abroad, Sharing Power at Home: Burundi in Somalia,” we outline several strategic reasons for this decision. First, it reduced the size of the bloated post-conflict army and it produced an opportunity to stop the forced demobilizations of former government forces (FAB –Forces Armées Burundais). This undoubtedly helped to ease tensions in the army. Second, it meant a new financial influx to a defense department, and as it turned out, to a government which was in dire need of an increased budget following the conflict. Third, it introduced excellent training opportunities, financed and organized by external partners who saw a perfect opportunity to restart train-and-equip and capacity-building programs. The U.S.-initiated ACOTA (African Contingency Operations Training and Assistance) stands out as the most important of these. Finally, becoming a troop-contributing country to peace operations enabled Burundi to cast off its old identity of a conflict-doomed state. It could now embrace a new, prestigious identity as a peacekeeper.

Western support of the Burundian troop contribution is equally underpinned by several strategic reasons. The strongest of these is undoubtedly the need to get more manpower involved in the war against terror, which in the case of AMISOM as in many other peace missions, overlaps with a UN/AU mandated peace operation. U.S. financial support to peace operations in Africa amounted to approximately $2.6 billion in 2013 (excluding U.S. contributions to the United Nations’ regular budget) and a variety of “train and equip” programs to support troop and police contributing countries. Last year, the United States also signed an accord to give the Burundian army an advanced anti-terrorist formation and more importantly, a SOFA (State of Forces Agreement), which basically allows the United States to establish a military base in Burundi with diplomatic status for all its members. For the United States, then, assisting Burundi to become an international peacekeeper appears to be a win-win situation: not only does it support a post-conflict state’s recovery by giving training and equipment, it also indirectly helps to both fight terrorism and build peace on the continent.

Traditional partners, such as Belgium and France have also supported Burundi’s “make-over” from a post-conflict to a peacekeeper state. In the case of Belgium, this includes providing PSO (peace support operations) courses for high-level staff. France, meanwhile, provides Burundi complete pre-deployment training similar to ACOTA formations. New partners have also joined the efforts to give the Burundian security sector much-needed reforms. These include Germany and the Netherlands, where the latter has become one of its most important partners through its long-term Security Sector Development program. These international capacity-building programs, which to a large extent have been locally accepted and embraced, have managed to construct an ethnically mixed army, which up until last week appeared to be a stabilizing institution in an increasingly authoritarian Burundi. However, the President’s bid for a third term has put all of this to the test and the crisis triggers questions about how wise it is to give military support to fresh post-conflict states with authoritarian tendencies?

The Burundian army has stood out as a particularly successful case of post-conflict military integration where the 50/50 ethnic quota guidelines have allowed a balanced mixed of representation up the ranks, unlike neighboring Rwanda, where ethnicities supposedly have disappeared, yet the senior leadership remains predominantly Tutsis. In comparison to Rwanda, another major troop contributor, the Burundian leadership has appeared more open and democratic, despite recent years’ increasing authoritarian tendencies and crackdown on political opponents. That the Burundian military has received extensive external support does not seem that surprising considering this background. It might also be one of the reasons to its stabilizing effect in the country up until now. Yet when this issue is, as Danielle Beswick notes, put in a broader perspective it is “reasonable to question the wisdom and long-term consequences of building and strengthening the military capacity of states with a history of military coups, interventions in neighboring countries, or human rights abuses committed by the very same security forces”. The absence of public scrutiny and academic analyses of the decision to engage with particular African militaries remain therefore surprising.

Ironically though, all this international training still appears not to have helped opponents to Nkurunziza’s third term in the Burundian army to complete a successful coup. His recent move to reshuffle his cabinet and replace the defense minister, a former FAB general, with a civilian Tutsi from his own party shows that he is running out of military confidants. In addition, placing a civilian in charge of the army is a risky move that can evoke protests and new divisions within the army.

On Monday, Nkurunziza played the peacekeeping card in an attempt to diverse attention from his bid for a third term. He then referred to the imminent risk of an attack from al-Shabab in Somalia because of Burundi’s troop deployment to the troubled area. The statement has been greeted with skepticism from observers, including a spokesperson from al-Shabab, who judged it to be “dumbfounding.”

To play the peacekeeping card has nevertheless been a popular move in the region, as troop-contributing neighbors have done the same when faced with internal and international pressure. Rwanda and Uganda’s threat to withdraw peacekeeping troops as international actors sanctioned their support to the rebel group M23 is the most recent example of this. Yet, despite international and national doubt about the accuracy and the timing of the president’s statement, it may be used to legitimize security forces’ hard crackdown on demonstrators in the coming weeks. As the president has called in the military to crack down on protesters, new signs of divisions within the army are visible; for example, this week, some soldiers have fired into crowds, while others backed away from protesters.

The military faces additional challenges as international pre-deployment instructors have been taking “vacation” since the end of April due to the security situation. This has resulted in a severely delayed troop contribution deployment, which risks to be permanent if donors decide to withdraw military training and support. If one is to look at lessons from the region, withdrawn support in the military area has been short-lived, and in the Rwandan case, has not influenced its (UN/AU) peace operation in Sudan substantially, if at all. Rwanda was at the time of the withdrawal of ACOTA, as the ‘best student in the class’, able to secure its pre-deployment training with its own forces. There is a big question mark with regards to whether Burundi is able to do this, in case of a presumably temporary withdrawal of international training. Yet, as the Burundian government knows, such a move from international partners will hurt both the peacekeeping mission and the fight against terrorists in Somalia. On Friday, the United States announced that it has suspended peacekeeping training activities for Burundi’s army, but took pains to note that the suspension is temporary and that there have been no cuts to funding for the programs.

Burundi’s recent experiences raises the question of how smart it is to militarily support increasingly authoritarian post-conflict regimes’ peacekeeping endeavors. The answer to that question is complex and contrast-filled, but definitely merits more attention from researchers and practitioners alike in the near future.

Nina Wilén is a post-doctoral research fellow at the University of Antwerp and a visiting researcher at Stellenbosch University. She is also a senior associate at the Security Governance Group. Gérard Birantamije is a researcher at the Department of Quality Insurance at the Lake Tanganyika University. David Ambrosetti is a senior researcher at the French Center for Scientific Research, CNRS, Bordeaux University.