Burundi’s self-fulfilling prophecy

From the Institute for Security Studies

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.

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.

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