It was ironic yet perhaps not entirely coincidental that just as regional leaders of the East African Community (EAC) were meeting Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza in Dar es Salaam to discuss how to resolve the growing crisis in his country, the army launched a coup attempt against him back home.
By this morning it was still not clear who was in charge of Burundi. Coup leader Major-General Godefroid Niyombare – a former chief of the military and of military intelligence – had announced at midday yesterday that Nkurunziza’s government had been deposed.
The president’s office denied this, and troops loyal to him struck back. Nkurunziza’s party, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy’s (CNDD-FDD), announced over national radio, which it still controlled, that the coup had been thwarted. But that was clearly not true either, as fierce fighting between loyalists and putschists in the army continued into the day.
Nkurunziza himself, evidently, remained out of the country, unable to return from the EAC summit because the rebellious troops had closed the Bujumbura airport. The simultaneous summit and coup attempt was not pure coincidence, for two reasons.
By the time the EAC issued a declaration, it had become a statement of the glaringly obvious
First, Niyombare probably made his move on Wednesday, in the classic manner, precisely because Nkurunziza was out of the country. And second, this was a coup waiting for some weeks to happen. And growing ever more impatient… So, it was due at any moment. Yesterday, moments before the coup was launched, Institute for Security Studies (ISS) researcher Yolande Bouka told participants in the newly launched weekly View on Africa briefing that unless the weeks-long crisis was resolved, a coup was becoming ever more likely.
Nkurunziza, a member of the majority Hutu tribe, who had led the CNDD-FDD armed rebel group in its fight against the previous, Tutsi-minority regime of Pierre Buyoya, had provoked the crisis. His announcement last month that he would run for a third term in office defied the two-term limits in the constitution and the Arusha Peace Accords which ushered in the current democratic phase.
His intention to do so had been obvious for months. The government was suppressing and killing political opponents, including through its sinister Imbonerakure militias. Street demonstrations in Bujumbura against his decision had been raging for over two weeks, and about 20 protestors have been killed by police.
Until yesterday, the military had remained disciplined and aloof from the conflict
Around 60 000 Burundians – including many minority Tutsis – had already fled across the borders to neighbouring Rwanda, Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo fearing another of those genocidal massacres that have regularly blotted the country’s post-independence history. So, the alarm bells had been clanging for a long time.
Yet it took the EAC leaders until yesterday to deem the problem important enough to meet to discuss it, as Bouka lamented. Until then, the EAC had adopted a hands-off attitude, insisting that this was Burundi’s problem, despite the evidence to the contrary. When the constitutional court – of very doubtful legitimacy – pronounced Nkurunziza’s candidacy constitutional, the EAC accepted that as the final word.
So, by the time the EAC leaders finally issued their declaration in Dar es Salaam, that ‘given the situation in Burundi, conditions are not conducive for elections in Burundi and the Summit calls upon the authorities to postpone the elections for period not beyond the mandate of the current government,’ it had become a statement of the glaringly obvious. It was self-evidently too late and also too little, because it did not explicitly insist that Nkurunziza should abandon his third term bid.
As former Kenyan prime minister Raila Odinga said, when he condemned the EAC and the African Union for failing ‘to demonstrate that they are in tune with the changing times on the continent, in which the people are not willing to be taken back to the old order in which constitutions counted for nothing.’ Odinga said the coup attempt was regrettable but not surprising, and that Burundi had now ‘lost an historic opportunity to strengthen its democracy by establishing a tradition of peaceful transfer of power.’
The summit declaration included a thinly veiled hint of military intervention
ISS researcher Bouka said today that although the situation in Bujumbura remained murky, she feared the worst-case scenario was unfolding. Until yesterday, the military had remained disciplined and aloof from the conflict, which had largely played out between the demonstrators on the one side and the police and Imbonerakure militias on the other.
This had kept casualty figures relatively low. ‘Now we have heavily armed soldiers participating in the conflict and shooting at each other, and it is rapidly escalating. Many civilians may also be caught in the crossfire.’
She adds: ‘The city will probably remain paralysed and in some areas, people will struggle to find food and water.’ How events would continue to unfold in Burundi, and what the region would do about it, are still unclear. The EAC summit declaration included a thinly veiled hint of military intervention if the fighting did not stop.
There were perhaps a few mercies, not necessarily small, to be grateful for. Perhaps the most important was that Niyombare is Hutu, not Tutsi. In fact, when appointing him as the first Hutu to lead the military in 2009, Nkurunziza, ironically, hailed his appointment as ‘a sign that the society has evolved.’
Bouka said that the growing political conflict in Burundi over the past 10 years had been mostly intra-Hutu, and so she did not believe even now that it would descend to ethnic violence, which would surely be an even worse scenario.
The other not-so-small mercy is that if the fighting can be contained, this tragedy might serve the useful purpose of finally delivering the message to Africa’s leadership, as Odinga said, that it can no longer indulge those who tamper with the constitution to cling to power.
Bouka noted that Nkurunziza had fired Niyombare as military intelligence chief in February this year, apparently because of an internal memo he had written, warning that the president’s third-term bid would destabilise the country. That turned out to be both an accurate forecast, and a self-fulfilling prophecy.
Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant