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Vol 56 No 10

Published 15th May 2015


The military moves against Nkurunziza's third-term bid

The latest attempt to defy a national constitution has hit the buffers as army officers claim to have thrown the President out of office

The announcement by ex-Chief of the Army Staff Major General Godefroid Niyombare on 13 May that he and a group of senior officers had overthrown President Pierre Nkurunziza was met with jubilation by crowds in the streets of Bujumbura. Niyombare declared that a 'committee to establish national concord' had removed the President because of his 'defiance' and 'arrogance' towards those who had advised him not to stand for a third term of office. 

Demonstrators celebrate as they surround a police truck in Bujumbura on 13 May 2015. (AP Photo/Berthier Mugiraneza)

Nkurunziza was attending a summit on his country's political crisis in Dar es Salaam when Niyombare and his fellow officers struck. Several activists and diplomats regard Niyombare as a competent and professional soldier and had expected the army, or at least part of it, to act as the protests against Nkurunziza mounted. About 20 people had been killed, mainly by the police, in protests in the week before Niyombare's putsch.

The immediate question asked in Bujumbura was to what extent the Niyombare group would be able to carry the rest of the security forces with it. He was flanked by three generals when he declared his putsch and said the police and the army were behind him. Until late on 13 May, military and civilian loyalists to Nkurunziza were insisting their man was still in charge.

Niyombare's credibility rests both on his opposition to Nkurunziza's third term bid and his status as the first-ever Chief of Army Staff from the majority Hutu population. After his appointment in 2006, his insistence that appointments should be based on professional merit, not the officer's ethnicity, did much to help stabilise the country after a decade of guerrilla war from 1995-2004. A colleague was reported as saying that Niyombare is 'equally respected by Hutu, Tutsi, Southern and Northern officers'. 

After six years as Army Chief of Staff, Niyombare was appointed principal security advisor to the President. After a brief spell as Burundi's ambassador to Kenya, the President summoned him back to Bujumbura to appoint him head of the domestic intelligence service, the Service national des renseignements. But Nkurunziza sacked him in February after he issued an intelligence briefing strongly advising against Nkurunziza's project to defy the constitution and stand for office again (AC Vol 56 No 9, Pierre nears the precipice). Since then, activists in the Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie-Forces pour la défense de la démocratie (CNDD-FDD) and military officers have been expecting Niyombare to make a move against Nkurunziza.

Even before Niyombare's action, international condemnation of Nkurunziza's third term bid was reaching a crescendo, and foreign donors were freezing funding for the elections. Embarrassed by the police's role in shooting dead eleven peaceful demonstrators, Belgium and the Netherlands had suspended their
5 million euro police training programme. Other appeals to Nkurunziza to postpone the elections were pouring in from all points of the compass, including the African Union, the US, and the European Union. 

The political crisis in Burundi is the latest test of efforts by sitting Presidents to change their country's constitutions and stand for a third term. Just over six months ago, Burkina Faso's President Blaise Compaoré fell from power when popular fury defeated his attempt to get the National Assembly to endorse his bid for another term (AC Vol 55 No 22, The warning from Ouagadougou). Other Presidents seeking to stay on past their legal limit include Congo-Brazzaville's Denis Sassou-Nguesso, Congo-Kinshasa's Joseph Kabila, and Rwanda's President Paul Kagame. Others, like Uganda's President Yoweri Museveni, have used the overwhelming parliamentary majorities of their ruling parties to change their constitution to end term limits. 

Reluctant to intervene in the affairs of member states, Chairwoman of the African Union Commission Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma has kept criticism of these moves generally discreet. Then, on 7 May, she made a statement pleading for the Burundi elections to be postponed as concern grew about the worsening confrontation. Foreign governments, mostly Western, were providing US$19 million to help support the elections. The parliamentary polls were due on 26 May and the presidential election on 26 June. 

The crisis suddenly worsened on 5 May when, as expected, the Constitutional Court ruled in favour of Nkurunziza's bid for a third term. However, when the Court's Vice-President, Judge Sylvère Nimpagaritse, fled to Rwanda shortly afterwards, he said that most of the Court's judges did not believe the bid was lawful. They ruled in Nkurunziza's favour only after receiving death threats, he said. 

To back his bid, Nkurunziza gave the feared Imbonerakure youth militia free rein, especially in the countryside, to attack his opponents. The Imbonerakure operate, according to witnesses, in concert with police. Sporadic grenade attacks on the police by unidentified people added to the tension. The Nkurunziza government was conflating the grenade attacks with the peaceful demonstrations in order to discredit them, civic activists said. 

Pressure on the media in the run-up to Niyambore's coup was intense, including the continuing forced closure of three independent radio stations, while social media and internet services were suspended. 

The leader of the opposition coalition, the Alliance démocratique pour le changement au Burundi (ADC-Ikibiri), Léonce Ngendakumana, said that guns and police uniforms had been distributed to the Imbonerakure. The leader of the opposition Forces nationales de libération, Agathon Rwasa, said police and Imbonerakure were in the midst of a manhunt for FNL officials in the northern city of Ngozi. 

Hopes for army
Before the Niyombare-led putsch, hopes in the opposition that the army might act as a brake on the President were widespread. It had been deployed in Bujumbura since 27 April, to the relief of residents who consider it more neutral than the police. The Defence Minister, General Pontien Gaciyubwenge, who is Tutsi, had declared recently that 'nobody' can require the army to contravene the Arusha Peace Agreement of 2000 or the Constitution (AC Vol 52 No 11, All the way down & Vol 41 No 17, Under Kilimanjaro). 

As the putsch neared, the leader of the Tutsi-dominated Union pour le progrès national (Uprona), Charles Nditije, a Hutu, said the opposition was planning to 'corner' Nkurunziza, for which the prospects looked poor to many political observers. The seven opposition presidential candidates looked certain to split the vote against Nkurunziza. Rwasa was thought to be the best unity candidate that the opposition could have fielded but he did not want to share power with Uprona. If the opposition ended up calling for a boycott of the elections, as it did in 2010, that was likely to have given Nkurunziza another free run at the presidency.

Opposition from within the CNDD-FDD was being purged. It was never a party known for strong internal democracy and leaders such as Second Vice-President Gervais Rufyikiri and National Assembly Speaker Pie Ntavyohanyumana were cleared out of senior party posts by Nkurunziza. 

For many people in Burundi, opposition to Nkurunziza's bid for a third term meant defending the Arusha Agreement. Not only does it set presidential term limits, it also guarantees representation for the minority Tutsi, with quotas in the army, police and civil institutions that have broad support. Many felt Arusha was under threat when the pro-CNDD-FDD Radio Rema began to incite hatred of Tutsi by claiming that the campaign against a third mandate was cover for a Tutsi plot to regain their lost power (AC Vol 51 No 13, Single party rules again). In February, Nkurunziza gave a speech declaring that Tutsi wanted a return to power, as in the time of the military dictatorship if 1966-1993. Most of the 50,000 people who have recently fled the country are Tutsi. 

Many of those opposed to Nkurunziza's plans, especially well-wishers abroad, deplored the opposition's inability to unite. It is not as if there was not enough social and economic frustration about his rule, they said. The government's record on health and education is disastrous and the extreme corruption at the top is well-known and much deplored throughout society. 

One of the most recent cases concerns the disappearance from the national budget of 39 billion Burundi francs ($25 mn.) which the United Nations paid towards salaries and expenses of the Burundian soldiers serving in the African Union Mission in Somalia. Some people in or close to the President's Office have been plundering the country's resources for years (AC Vol 55 No 7, Taxing troubles). 

The clamour of diplomats, foreign leaders and government ministers was not getting through to Nkurunziza. Earlier, the United States Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor, Tom Malinowski, urged Nkurunziza to allow peaceful criticism, while the US Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, said that Nkurunziza had violated the Arusha Agreement. Belgian Foreign Minister Didier Reynders declared that those who commit violence or human rights violations will be held personally responsible. China and Russia, both Permanent Members of the UN Security Council, thwarted attempts to increase pressure on Nkurunziza. They consistently block what they call interference in other countries' internal affairs. 

'God's gift'
Despite all the pressure, Nkurunziza refused to budge. Those who know 'Peter', as many call him, say he often does not even listen to ministers in cabinet meetings. They say he can't concentrate for long periods and appeared more concerned about the fortunes of his Hallelujah football club than the business of government. 

Because he narrowly escaped death during the guerrilla war, Nkurunziza, who is a 'born-again' Christian pastor, was convinced that God has chosen him to become Burundi's leader. 

Such is the political disarray that – without or without a military putsch – the chances of a credible election over the next month in Burundi look remote. The latest military intervention could give all sides a breathing space if, and it's the most important condition, the interim regime can hold together the armed forces and the security services. 

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