Coup Attempt in Burundi–What’s Next?

A few moments ago, Major General Godefroid Niyombare took to the (private) Burundian airwaves to announce that he was ousting President Pierre Nkurunziza, whose bid to secure a third term as head of state has roiled the country for weeks.

His announcement was to the point. (You can listen to it here, in French).

“Regarding President Nkurunziza’s arrogance and defiance of the international community which advised him to respect the constitution and Arusha peace agreement, the committee for the establishment of the national concord decide: President Nkurunziza is dismissed, his government is dismissed too.”

Immediately after, the office of the President declared that the “coup attempt failed” (though at first their Twitter feed simply said there was “no coup” at all, and that the situation was under control.) Whatever you call it, the move by General Niyombare was well timed: The president is in Tanzania for a scheduled meeting with other regional leaders aimed at ending the political crisis in Burundi. That meeting has since been called off.

At this early stage, the situation is still developing, and it’s unclear whether the attempted coup will succeed or not. At time of writing, the presidential palace is still under government control, as is the public radio station, where some reports indicate that loyalist officers are firing warning shots. Interestingly, the Imbonerakure – the militarized youth wing of the ruling party – as well as the police, are reportedly not reacting, or at least not obviously or violently, in the streets of the capital.

The roll of the army here is instructive. Over the course of the past few weeks, while police forces have been violently cracking down on protesters, the army has been restrained and mostly on the sidelines of the confrontation between the government and the street. The political fault lines in Burundi are complex, and underpinned by a number of factors – to look at Burundi through the prism of ethnic conflict is an oversimplification. In fact, Nkurunziza and General Niyombare are both former Hutu rebel leaders. They also belong to the same governing party, and Niyombare was both Ambassador to Kenya and intelligence chief, a post he was dismissed from earlier this year. Also worth noting, is the fact that the general’s dismissal from this key post was taking place at the same time as a general weeding out of individuals not supportive of Nkurunziza’s third term bid.

What’s happening today in Burundi is reminiscent of what took place late last year in Burkina Faso, when long-time head of state Blaise Compaore was deposed by the military after declaring his intention to run for yet another term. While the situation in Burkina Faso is still in flux, it was a key moment, as the public massively supported the coup, fed up with Compaore’s decades-long rule. As the events in Burkina Faso demonstrated, a military coup can sometimes be a necessary evil.

Can it be the same for Burundi?

The situation in Burundi is clearly different, particularly given the protracted civil war which ended in 2005, and killed hundreds of thousands. And many are observing that while the youth in Bujumbura, the capital, may feel strongly about not wanting Nkurunziza to run again, people in the country side have generally not expressed similar feelings. That being said, the growing, massive flow of refugees from Burundi into neighboring countries is nevertheless an indication of the unrest and turmoil which this conflict, primarily political in nature for now, is stirring.

There are still many unknowns about what is happening in Burundi right now. Key among them is the degree of support that General Niyombare has among other members of the military. If the military splits, the Imbonerakure may very well side against him. This could portend a much deadlier and protracted conflict.