Watch List 2021 – Autumn Update
Watch List 2021 – Autumn Update
Demonstrators take part in a protest in Bujumbura on 13 May 2015. AFP/Landry Nshimiye
Commentary / Africa 4 minutes

Burundi’s Coup from Within

Burundi’s Major-General Godefroid Niyombare said in a statement on 13 May 2015 that he had removed President Pierre Nkurunziza from office because he was seeking an unconstitutional third five-year term. While Nkurunziza claims that the coup has failed, Niyombare says he is working with civil society groups to form a transitional government. We talk to Crisis Group Central Africa Project Director Thierry Vircoulon about the unfolding developments.

Crisis Group: Why has a coup been launched now? What do you make about the situation on the ground?

Thierry Vircoulon: The coup leaders took advantage of the fact that President Nkurunziza had travelled to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, to attend a summit of the East African Community (EAC) today. Ironically, the special meeting had been convened by regional heads of state to discuss the crisis in Burundi after three weeks of street protests in the capital city against Nkurunziza’s candidacy for the next election.

The situation on the ground is very fluid and uncertain. There were signs of joy in the centre of Bujumbura in the afternoon, with people dancing and fraternising with military forces on the street. However, there have also been reports of negotiations between the security forces loyal to President Nkurunziza and the rebels. The situation outside the capital remains unclear.

Who is behind the Burundi coup? The army? A popular revolt?

The coup was staged by Major-General Godefroid Niyombare, a former army chief of staff, a former ambassador to Kenya and a former intelligence service head. General Niyombare is from the ruling party’s security elite who has become dissatisfied with President Nkurunziza’s rule. He is not the only disgruntled general, but is the most visible. Niyombare was dismissed by the president in February 2015 after he sent a personal note advising him not to run for a third presidential term. This is very much a coup from within the ruling party’s inner circle.

General Godefroid Niyombare mentioned the Arusha agreement in his statement. Had it really broken down? Why is it important to preserve?

The Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi, signed in 2000, eventually ended a long, ethnically charged civil war in 2005. Nkurunziza and the ruling elite have blocked the implementation of key provisions of the agreement – for instance, a transitional justice process – and have badly managed much needed land reform. They have also created a superficial opposition de façade in order to preserve the appearance of institutionalised power sharing. In fact, they have made no secret of their dislike for the Arusha peace agreement, nor of their intention to amend one of its principal achievements, the constitution. The constitution refers to the Arusha agreement, provides for a two-term limit for the president and makes a two-thirds parliamentary majority compulsory to pass a law. Nkurunziza’s attempt to change the constitution in 2014 failed by only one vote.

The Arusha agreement is widely considered to be the foundation for peace in Burundi. It created the present power-sharing system, which is seen by most Burundians as the best available, able to accommodate the country’s various political interests and making peaceful coexistence possible after a very long civil war that cost 300,000 lives.

Does the army actually have a broader base of public support than the outgoing president?

The army has a good public image, both in the country and internationally, but a counter-coup is still possible. Major General Niyombare’s action will likely be supported by the opposition, but opposition leaders will also ask for a return to civilian constitutional rule as fast as possible.

What underlying grievances motivate the protestors?

The demonstrators’ principal grievance was that President Nkurunziza was running for a third term in the 26 June elections. More than 70,000 Burundians had already fled the country, fearing violence if he insisted on this course of action. They were worried by increasing authoritarianism that marked the president’s second mandate, by the lack of social services and economic development, as well as by rising corruption.

What is the Burundian army’s record of returning power to civilians?

Burundi’s history has been marked by several bloodless military coups. This is not the first time that a president was dismissed by a coup while abroad. In 1976, President Jean-Baptiste Bagaza took power in a bloodless coup but was himself the victim of another coup while he was in Canada in 1987. President Pierre Buyoya organised two coups, and after each stayed in power for several years (1987-1993 and 1996-2003).

How is Africa reacting? Are there any signs of regional involvement in the coup?

Most African countries are waiting to see how the situation plays out before offering a formal reaction. However, East African leaders condemned the coup after their summit today. The coup is principally an internal matter, the latest example on the continent of how any attempt by leaders to extend their mandates can trigger large and prolonged popular demonstrations and crises.

What should the international community be saying and doing?

Burundi’s international partners should insist on the return to civilian rule through peaceful elections this year. All the technical elements are in place for Burundi’s electoral process to resume, but it is important to recreate the political conditions for peaceful polls. If this is done, donors could reconsider their recent suspension of electoral assistance.

International actors should take note that Major-General Niyombare says he wants to resume the electoral process, and that he says he will work with civil society, religious leaders and politicians.

The UN Security Council should task the Secretary-General’s special envoy for the Great Lakes region, who had been facilitating dialogue between the opposition and the ruling party, to convene a roundtable of the Burundian political actors quickly. International actors should also demand the release of the many people arrested for taking part in the mounting demonstrations of the past weeks.

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