Burundi may be in the midst of a military coup to oust President Pierre Nkurunziza:
An army general in Burundi announced Wednesday that the military had ousted President Pierre Nkurunziza, setting off celebrations in the streets among protesters who had been trying to block the president’s bid for another term.
“President Pierre Nkurunziza is removed from office,” Maj. Gen. Godefroid Niyombare said in a broadcast on a radio station in the capital, Bujumbura.
In justifying the coup, General Niyombare said the president had killed opponents and protesters, overseen a corrupt government and — by seeking a third term — had disregarded the nation’s constitution and the 2005 peace agreement that ended the country’s civil war.
It was not immediately clear whether the general had the backing of the army, or whether a coup had been carried out successfully.
Many people in Burundi weren’t so happy lately with Nkurunziza’s attempt to secure himself a third term in office, when Burundi’s constitution limits presidents to two terms, and that’s borne out somewhat by reports of “celebrations” breaking out in Bujumbura after Niyombare’s announcement. Still, it’s not clear that Niyombare, who appears to have been fired from his position as intelligence chief by Nkurunziza in February (possibly over his opposition to Nkurunziza’s political plans), has pulled or can pull this off. Nkurunziza was out of the country attending a meeting of the East African Community (Burundi, Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, and Uganda) leaders in Tanzania, so he’s still alive and free. His aides have publicly called the coup report a “joke,” and there is now a statement (in French) posted to the “Présidence — République du Burundi” Facebook page that says the attempted coup was “foiled” and that the country is “secure.”
At the moment it’s next to impossible to tell whether the coup has succeeded or failed (the coup plotters would naturally want to declare success no matter what, just as the president’s people would naturally want to declare the opposite), but either way this could be the match that lights the proverbial tinder box (even if Nkurunziza leaves quietly, the question of succession is wide open). There are fears that the violence could quickly turn ethnic, mirroring previous waves of Hutu-Tutsi violence in Burundi and neighboring Rwanda, but people who actually know the country have been observing that the crisis around Nkurunziza hasn’t yet gone in that direction:
Finally, some observers have raised the explicit question of ethnicity and the potential for ‘genocide’ in Burundi. While the Hutu ethnicity enjoys a sizable majority (80 percent) to the minority Tutsi (20 percent), there is little ethnically divided sentiment of the sort that sparked the civil war of 1993-2005. However, complicating the ethnicity issue are reports that pro-Nkurunziza forces have started publicly identifying political organizations sympathetic to the protests and ‘labeling’ neighborhoods where demonstrations occur, setting in place the ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ framework of ethnic conflict. In some cases they are even using the civil war terminology of ‘sans echecs,’ a reference to the notorious Tutsi youth militia responsible for grave acts of violence in Bujumbura during the war.
There’s also the ever-present concern about population displacement to consider. Refugees have a destabilizing effect anywhere, but refugee crises in the East Africa/Congo region have historically tended to spawn serious regional problems. The violence around Nkurunziza’s electoral shenanigans has already driven thousands of refugees into Rwanda, and if the violence gets worse then many more could follow them.