A Year of “Sustaining Peace”: What Was Learned from Burundi and The Gambia?

Gambians wait to cast their vote during the recent parliamentary election. Banjul, Gambia, April 6, 2017. (Associated Press)

A year ago today, the United Nations Security Council and General Assembly adopted dual resolutions on “sustaining peace.” With this framework, the UN embraced a prevention approach in its peacebuilding efforts, with continuous attention of the international community from early warning to post-conflict recovery. Sustaining peace emphasizes inclusive dialogue, mediation, accountable institutions, good governance, access to justice, and gender equality. It encourages utilizing existing societal mechanisms and capacities to build resilience and drive positive peace. Yet there is still confusion over what this means in practice. Two recent case studies might shed some much-needed light on the matter: The Gambia and Burundi.

The resolution of The Gambia’s potential political crisis following an election in December last year has been hailed as a success story for preventative action on the continent. The UN was quick to commend the work of Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) in preventing the outbreak of conflict by helping to peacefully remove President Yahya Jammeh. Earlier this month, The Gambia held successful National Assembly elections, with the United Democratic Party winning the majority of seats. The party and its newly elected President Adama Barrow now control both the legislative and executive branches of government and there is hope that they will usher in a peaceful period with respect for democratic rule.

Sentiments directed toward the situation in Burundi have been vastly different. Efforts from regional, continental, or international actors have been either insufficient or ineffective in attempting to resolve the crisis triggered by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s subversion of constitutional rules and democratic norms to gain a third term in power.

The sustaining peace framework offers options for international actors to keep The Gambia transition on track and also to prevent a worsening of the situation in Burundi.

Drivers of Peace and Resilience

A key way to stimulate early action on prevention, as suggested by many policymakers and practitioners, is to focus on the factors associated with positive, inclusive peace rather than solely on the causes that drive and sustain violent conflict. In The Gambia, women and youth organizations have been identified and promoted as factors that increase resilience, in part through civic education. For instance, the “#GambiaHasDecided” youth social movement was created to ensure respect of the people’s voice through election results. It played a crucial role in educating Gambians on their rights as voters and opening space for political debate. Most Gambian youth have only known their country under the 22-year rule of Jammeh, yet they played a critical role in the recent election, and their contributions and will for change were praised by many experts.

This type of grassroots action is also present in Burundi, and helped to prevent the worst-case scenario of a return to civil war, or even the genocide that some analysts predicted over the period since Nkurunziza began agitating for a third term. One example is the work of the Women Network for Peace and Dialogue, a UN Women-supported platform that has been operating since January 2015, with funding from the UN Peacebuilding Fund. The network consists of 534 mediators working across all municipalities in Burundi to promote nonviolence and dialogue, and to counter rumors and fears with verifiable information. These efforts have contributed to preventing widespread panic, whose risk has been heightened since independent media outlets were shut down in May 2015.

By engaging early warming and proactive mediation aimed at defusing tensions, these local actors helped leverage inbuilt capabilities for peace, with the support of international and regional parties. This includes building on UN contributions over the past decade to create and strengthen resilient institutions in Burundi, particularly those related to transitional justice; development; rule of law; security sector reform; and disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration.

The Role of Regional Actors

Sustaining peace was first proposed by the Advisory Group of Experts which reviewed the UN’s peacebuilding architecture in 2015. The group’s final report recommended efforts to enhance credible and effective partnerships between the UN and regional and sub-regional actors. These actors are considered central to prevention, particularly where it may involve direct intervention. Given their proximity to the countries in question, they have more credibility and more of a vested interest in avoiding outbreaks of violence.

The strong position of West African leaders working through ECOWAS in resolving the Gambian conflict is a good example of an innovative approach to providing “international support to free and fair elections” of a regional actor. After first conceding victory to Barrow, Jammeh contested the results and declared a state of emergency. The ECOWAS response to this situation that threatened to erupt into violent protests was swift and united. A mission composed of the heads of state of Liberia, Nigeria, and Ghana was deployed within days, to convey support of a peaceful political transition in line with the election results. A few days later, in Abuja, ECOWAS declared its intent to take all measures necessary to enforce the results of the election; in other words, the only solution for Jammeh was to accept his defeat and cede power.

In this case, the region spoke with one voice, which was central to applying pressure for change and sent a strong message that election results must be accepted. ECOWAS sustained its engagement throughout the entire transition period; this is visible through its press statements congratulating Barrow, and declarations made to the Gambian people indicating the bloc’s support for the transfer of power.

Furthermore, on the continental level, 10 heads of states from the region were involved in the mediation efforts, either through making statements, sending envoys, or offering to host Jammeh. At the international level, the Security Council unanimously expressed “support to ECOWAS in its commitment to ensure, by political means first, the respect of the will of the people.” At the same time ECOWAS had deployed a military force on the Senegalese border ready to intervene to forcefully remove Jammeh from power if it proved necessary.

This sustained, clear, and united engagement was not present in the case of Burundi, where the absence of international consensus was striking. The response to Nkurunziza’s refusal to respect the country’s constitutional term limit, thus “winning” the disputed 2015 presidential elections, has not garnered as much traction nor unity. This was clearly evident when the government of Burundi refused to allow UN police onto its territory to monitor the security and human rights situation after the Security Council voted to send 228 officers. Four of its members abstained from the vote.

At the regional level, the East African Community’s (EAC) efforts to mediate have been relatively weak, owing to a lack of member state interest and leverage. The AU’s plan to deploy 5,000 troops to Burundi in December 2015 quickly fell apart as Burundian authorities wholly rejected the proposal. The Inter-Burundian Dialogue led by the EAC and facilitated by former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa is also struggling to achieve consensus, with the government claiming there is no crisis and focusing on the 2020 elections. The opposition is demanding a transitional government and the removal of Nkurunziza before those polls can take place. Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation in the country is deteriorating, with 413,477 refugees and civil society activists being forced to live in exile.

The cases of The Gambia and Burundi also tell us a lot about the means of sustaining peace in times of electoral transitions, particularly as it relates to the promotion of democracy. In West Africa, ECOWAS is largely composed of resilient democratic states that have experienced relatively smooth political transitions and are led by democratically elected leaders. Thirteen of the 15 ECOWAS member states have a mandated term-limit enshrined in their constitutions, for example. In East Africa, however, there is a tension between the notion of democratic culture and presidents who remain in power for decades. Several EAC heads of state are clinging to power through constitutional revisions or threat of the use of force. Denouncing Nkurunziza’s attempt to violate the presidential term limit would thus discredit their own legitimacy at the national level. This dynamic has largely accounted for the absence of international consensus with respect to the situation in Burundi.

There is, in turn, a deeper lesson for prevention efforts in terms of unpacking what democracy means. In Burundi, one of the challenges has been from political actors, who believe they have won the electoral contest, using ruthless methods to eradicate the opposition. This concept of democracy itself and the institutions around it must be strengthened in order to prevent further crises of this nature.


UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres is due to deliver a report on implementation of the sustaining peace resolutions at the 72nd session of the General Assembly later this year. Continuing confusion around what sustaining peace actually entails a year after its adoption means considerable work must be done in the meantime. There is a strong need for a common and practical understanding within the UN system and among member states, with particular reference to the role of civil society and regional actors.

Both Burundi and The Gambia offer a chance to connect prevention to elections in particular, and to adapt new thinking around the role of prevention to build up democratic institutions and permit smooth, legitimate transfers of power. Prevention through the lens of sustaining peace entails building upon existing resilient peace capacities and discovering how these can be leveraged to support peaceful societies. Within the UN, the Peacebuilding Commission (PBC) can provide much of the sustained attention required, especially in the case of countries which are neither on the Security Council agenda nor the PBC agenda itself. Together, regional and international partners can work to maintain and step up support for peace and security, human rights, institution-building, humanitarian aid, socioeconomic development, and legitimate elections. All these aspects combined are expected to contribute to long-lasting peaceful societies.

Lesley Connolly is a Policy Analyst in the Center for Peace Operations at the International Peace Institute.