Burundi's ultimate power struggle risks plunging country back into civil war

Amid fierce fighting, the embattled President has returned to reclaim his position. But fears grow that the East African nation could be thrown into fresh turmoil by a 'purely political' coup attempt

Catrina Stewart
Friday 15 May 2015 10:36
Protesters, who are opposed to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term, gesture in front of a burning barricade in Bujumbura, Burundi
Protesters, who are opposed to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term, gesture in front of a burning barricade in Bujumbura, Burundi

A decade after the end of a bloody civil war, Burundi is sliding back towards all-out conflict after a military coup and fierce fightback from forces loyal to President Pierre Nkurunziza.

The embattled African leader, who was in Tanzania for crisis talks when a former army ally announced his ousting on Wednesday, arrived back in the tiny nation, the culmination of a dramatic 36 hours during which it remained unclear who would emerge the victor.

“President Nkurunziza is back in Burundi after the attempted coup. He congratulates the army, the police and the Burundian people,” a message from the presidential office said.

The capital, Bujumbura, was the scene of fierce fighting as loyalist forces battled to retain control of key institutions – particularly the airport and the state television and radio complex – from pro-coup forces. Despite claims from loyalist forces that they were back in charge, tensions in the city remained high amid fears of a protracted power struggle.

Analysts warned that the longer the crisis continued, the greater the likelihood that the country will be plunged into a civil war, potentially drawing in neighbouring countries, such as Rwanda. Burundi’s ethnically charged civil war, which resulted in the deaths of 300,000 Burundians and helped spark the 1994 genocide of Tutsis in Rwanda, ended in 2005 and remains a bitter memory.

Mr Nkurunziza, who triggered the current showdown with his bid for a third presidential term in breach of the constitution, was barred from returning to the central African nation after the coup leaders closed the borders while he was in Tanzania for an emergency summit to discuss the crisis. While his exact whereabouts remained a secret, he relayed a message via national radio denouncing the coup and offering forgiveness to those soldiers who surrendered, only for the station to go off the air a short while later. The station, a potent symbol of power in the country as the only station broadcasting outside of the capital, soon resumed broadcasts and insisted it was still in the hands of troops loyal to the President. “We had stopped broadcasting for several minutes because there was heavy fighting,” the broadcast said. “The fighting is over and we are resuming our broadcast.”

A spokesman for Maj-Gen Godefroid Niyombare, the army officer who launched the coup on Wednesday in the President’s absence and hasn’t been heard from since, had earlier insisted that the capital remained in the hands of the coup supporters. The radio station from which he made his declaration was later firebombed.

Major General Godefroid Niyombare has not been seen since the coup attempt

The military, split now into two rival factions, has been viewed as an impartial observer in the two weeks of demonstrations that followed the President’s decision to stand, and news of the coup was initially greeted with jubilation by many in the capital. At least 15 people have been killed in the protests. The constitution limits a President to two terms, but Mr Nkurunziza, a Hutu and former rebel leader, has argued that his first term does not count because he was chosen by parliament, not the people. The US State Department said it still recognised Mr Nkurunziza as President.

But critics view his decision to stand again as a dismissal of the Arusha peace agreement that served as a basis for the 2005 constitution and enshrined equal rights for the minority Tutsi population, which had dominated government prior to the conflict.

“If this conflict goes on for any longer, it [could] descend into a scenario of all-out war between two parties who are very well armed,” Yolande Bouka, an analyst at the Institute for Security Studies, said. “The whole country could be swallowed by civil war.”

More than 70,000 Burundians have already fled to Rwanda, according to the UN, fearing violence in the run-up to elections that had been scheduled for late June. The ruling CNDD-FDD party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure, has in particular been deployed to intimidate and harass those who support the opposition. It is particularly tainted for its role in the brutal extra-judicial executions of at least 47 captured rebels in Cibitoke last December.

Despite fears in some quarters that the conflict could play out along ethnic lines, the battle for power remains a purely political one at present. Maj-Gen Niyombare, a Hutu, hails from the President’s innermost circle. He rose through the ranks to become the army chief-of-staff, served as Burundi’s ambassador to Kenya and was appointed head of intelligence in December, putting him at the heart of a regime that ruled by force.

He was abruptly sacked in February after writing to the President advising him not to seek a third term, fearing, like others in the military, that it would lead to civil disturbance. Mr Nkurunziza, a born-again Christian who believes he has a divine calling to lead, is treading a well-worn path in Africa. In four African countries, leaders have clung to power for more than 30 years, and President Yoweri Museveni in nearby Uganda this year celebrated his 29th year in office.

It was perhaps unsurprising then that African nations roundly condemned the coup.

African coups: Failed takeover bids

The Gambia

An attempted coup to topple the strongman President, Yahya Jammeh, on Boxing Day failed when plotters thought the President’s guard wouldn’t return fire. Most of the assailants died. Mr Jammeh came to power by overthrowing the country’s first President, in 1994.

Ivory Coast

Has seen an number of coup attempts. In 2012 authorities foiled a plot to overthrow the government organised by supporters of the former President Laurent Gbagbo. The coup plotters were linked to Liberian mercenaries and Ivorian militias. Mr Gbagbo will go on trial in November over a violent reaction to his refusing to stand down.

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