Events are unfolding fast–very fast–in Burundi — and what happens there matters to the world. Here are four keys for understanding the Burundi coup.
What happened to the coup?
Last week, Major-General Godefroid Nyombare – a former close political ally to President Nkurunziza – seized an opportunity to overthrow the president while he was in Tanzania, attending a high-level meeting organized by the regional leaders. Following 36 hours of tense uncertainty – was the coup successful? is the army united behind Nyombare? Where is Nkurunziza? — the coup was declared a failure, as Nkurunziza made his way back to the presidential palace in Bujumbura. The briefly deposed president is now firmly ensconced in the presidential palace. He has dismissed his cabinet and is now surrounded by ultra-loyalists.
What is the role of the army?
The Burundian army has a central role in the unfolding political drama. Professionalized and trained, the army has mostly avoided taking sides since President Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for a third term. General Nyombare’s coup attempt was the work of a small group of senior officers, and while the armed forces didn’t forcefully intervene to stop the coup right away, neither did they prevent people from celebrating and marching in the streets of Bujumbura. Nkurunziza knows he has a great asset with the Burundian army, and he must manage this relationship very carefully – the coup would have undoubtedly been successful if the army had supported it in a more assertive way. The situation is evolving, however. AP reports suggest that the army has at least partly taken over crowd control in Bujumbura, with soldiers trying to contain protesters while confronting police directly in some neighborhoods. If there is one thing to keep in mind, it’s that the army has a much more pacifying role than the police, with soldiers playing an important buffer role between police and protesters over the last few weeks.
What is the Current Situation?
While the international community has been clear that it perceives Nkurunziza’s third term bid to be illegitimate, the pull of a Westphalian understanding of sovereignty and the discomfort with coups and instability led many nations, including the United States and regional allies, to declare that it still considers Nkurunziza to be the legitimate head of state. This unexpected boost from the international community most certainly weakened the position of the putschists and provided Nkurunziza with the political capital to re-enter Burundi and recover from the coup attempt. Since then, coup leaders – but not General Nyombare, who is on the loose – have faced a prosecutor in court, and the foreign and defense ministers have been sacked. Meanwhile, clashes in Bujumbura are ongoing, with at least one soldier and one protester killed in recent days.
With Burundi’s all major independent radio stations off the air following attacks (and counter-attacks) against their facilities and intimidation of their staff, the only remaining radio outlet – the most prevalent media in Burundi, where internet and television are scarce – is state radio. Since his return, Nkurunziza’s rhetoric has been fiercely defensive. During his first address to the nation on Sunday, he – rather incongruously – spent the 50 seconds of his address speaking about the terrorist threat posed by Al-Shabaab in the region. He did not address the coup attempt, the protests, or concerns about independent media being able to do their job.
One of the most worrisome developments in this ongoing crisis is the alarmingly high number of people crossing the border from Burundi into neighboring countries. Now over 125,000 Burundians have fled to Tanzania, Rwanda and the DRC – from 20,000 just a few weeks ago. Refugees are facing harsh conditions – Kagunga, the 11,000 person fishing village immediately across the border in Tanzania, is hosting at least 70,000 Burundian refugees. There is no infrastructure to deal with this massive influx (the village only has 94 latrines), and cholera has begun to spread rapidly. Already at least 33 people have fallen to the disease in recent days. How will the exiled population be able to participate in the political process, and when and how they may be able to return to Burundi, is unclear.
What Will Happen to the June Presidential Elections?
Nkurunziza already announced yesterday that the legislative elections slated for May 26 were being postponed for at least a week. This announcement was not well received by the opposition, who claim that a one week delay will not enable free, fair and peaceful elections to take place. As for the presidential election, it has yet to be postponed, and Nkurunziza is still officially in the running. The presidents of Kenya and South Africa have recently exhorted Nkurunziza to postpone the presidential election indefinitely, until some semblance of calm and stability returns to Burundi. Regional leaders are toeing a fine line, attempting to balance support for state integrity, stability and sovereignty with the – equally important – objective of not condoning Nkurunziza’s third term bid, which could set a risky precedent in a region where leaders all too often seek to remain in power, despite what their own constitutions allow for.
It seems unlikely that the election can be held in June in the current climate; with little to no independent media broadcasting – let alone ongoing protests and unrest – candidates will have a difficult time campaigning, if at all. But, as of now, the election is moving forward. While Nkurunziza’s said he would not seek a fourth term, he is still firm in his stance: he is running for a third term, and those who disagree him are essentially enemies of the state.
The next few weeks will be tense and volatile. The international community must be on high alert. As noted recently, the alarm bells are ringing in Burundi. Unfortunately, the fire brigade is nowhere to be seen.