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Inside Burundi’s attempted coup

By Haggai Matsiko

Warning to leaders seeking to unconstitutionally cling onto power

Apart from fears Burundi could return to another civil war similar to the 13-year long one that ended in 2006, many point to the Burundi instability as a reminder of what danger lurks when leaders seek to unconstitutionally cling onto power. Nkurunziza is just one such leader across the region.

It is South Sudan President Salva Kiir’s maneuvers to extend his rule that plunged the country into civil war at the end of 2013. In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) a bill seeking to extend the term of President Joseph Kabila also sparked deadly riots at the beginning of this year.


In Rwanda, there are calls for President Paul Kagame to have the constitution amended so he can continue ruling the country. Meanwhile, Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni was the first of all these leaders to have term limits removed so he could stay in office where he is capping 30 years.

President Museveni has already declared his bid for a 5th elective term and is making it clear the opposition will not be allowed to spoil his party.

Indeed, on the same morning that news of the attempted coup in Burundi emerged, police in Uganda arrested and detained former Kampala major Elias Lukwago and Kizza Besigye, who is the defacto leader of Uganda’s opposition, having run against President Museveni thrice.

Besigye and Lukwago are leading a campaign against the refusal of the government of President Museveni to adopt key electoral reforms ahead of the 2016 polls.

The arrest and detention of Lukwago and Besigye, police claims, was as a result of their refusal to seek permission to hold a meeting. But nobody is fooled. Just as in Burundi, the police in Uganda are bent on protecting the government in power and frustrating Museveni’s opponents with force, teargas, and the law.

Lukwago, for example, told The Independent that he was arrested at about 10am on May 14 but police first drove him around Kampala city suburbs for about three hours until he was detained at Katwe Police Station where he was released at about 8pm. Police also arrested and remanded 11 others who had gathered for the meeting on the electoral reforms.

“This is psychological torture,” Lukwago says, “the Uganda police is hell bent on regime protection.”

Ticking time bomb

With that kind of impunity, Lukwago said, you cannot expect President Museveni to learn anything from what has happened in Burundi.

“If anything,” he added, “Museveni sees Nkurunziza as an amateur and sees himself as a master of some kind of dictatorship.”

Then he warned.

“But we are sitting on a ticking bomb,” Lukwago added, “we are likely to see an explosion at some point because you cannot keep suppressing peoples’ will, you cannot push people into total submission.”

President Museveni’s supporters easily laugh off such claims because President Museveni is known to have a firm grip on the ruling party and the security forces. But critics are usually quick to remind such loyalists of Uganda’s political history, which is littered with coups against some like former President Milton Obote, who lost power through military coups twice despite bragging that such was impossible.

Like Obote who lost power to Amin while abroad, Nkuruziza almost faced the same fate.

The attempted coup was announced the same day regional leaders and Nkurunziza himself had gathered in Tanzania to among others discuss ending violence in Burundi that, according the UN, has forced over 100,000 to neighbouring countries.

The chaos that has also claimed over 25 lives started in earnest after Nkurunziza insisted on clinging on power by having his ruling party CNDD-FDD’s nominate him to run for a third term at the polls slated for June 26.

Having entered office in 2005, Nkurunziza wants to seek re-election at this year’s polls to the chagrin of the opposition, who insist that he has already served the two terms he is allowed under the Burundi constitution.

Nkurunziza and his supporters, however, argue that his first term did not count as he was elected by parliament, not directly by the people.

Burundi’s constitutional court recently ruled in the president’s favour but critics were quick to point to the fact that one of the judges fled the country citing death threats.

What started as protests suddenly deteriorated into fights amongst security forces—those loyal to Nkurunziza and those against his bid for a third term in office.

On May.14 at the height of the attempted coup, troops loyal to the president fought off attacks by rival soldiers, who wanted to control the state broadcaster—RTNB—to control the flow of information. Reports indicated that Nkurunziza’s loyalists had shot at and forced all major private radio stations to stop broadcasting.

Luckily for Nkurunziza, the coup failed as fast as it was announced. The coup leaders’ spokesman, Zenon Ndabaneze, told media that they had decided to surrender. Ndabaneze’s announcement came minutes before he was arrested together with other coup leaders.

The coup leader, Gen Godefroid Niyombare, a former intelligence chief, who announced he had taken over on May13 through a private radio station, was also quoted saying he was about to surrender before he was arrested.

Niyombare and his colleagues admitted they had been overpowered militarily. Gen Prime Niyongabo, the army chief-of-staff had already noted that the number of soldiers backing the coup had fallen.

While announcing the coup, Niyombare had promised not to take power himself but to restore the electoral process in a peaceful and fair environment.

But the international community was quick to dismiss the coup talk. While the U.S. insisted that Nkurunziza remained the legitimate president, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon condemned attempts to oust elected governments by military force.

“I thank the army and police for their patriotism,” Nkurunziza posted on Twitter after fully regaining control, “Above all I thank Burundians for their patience.”

But even as the presidency appeared to celebrate the failure of the coup, fears remained because undercurrents of division and restlessness within the security forces could mean that stability is still a far off dream for Burundi.

Because of the coup, Nkurunziza, who appears to have regained control, is expected to push off the polls, which were scheduled for June.

A statement from the 13th Extra-ordinary Summit of the East African Community (EAC) heads of state held on May13, condemned the coup and called for the return to constitutional order.

“Given the situation in Burundi,” the statement said, “conditions are not conducive for elections in Burundi and the summit calls upon the authorities to postpone the elections for a period not beyond the mandate of the current government.”

Bad example

Simon Mulongo, a legislator and regional security expert told The Independent that the Burundi crisis shows the effects of the flu of lifting term limits that seems to be spreading across the region, with Uganda having set the bad example.

Mulongo says the regions leaders’ reaction to the Burundi crisis exposed how divided the region is and how unready it is as far as dealing with regional security issues is concerned.

Matters are not helped by the fact that the EAC security pact remains unimplemented. Under the pact, an attack on one member state is seen as an attack on all. Instead, it is only the northern corridor—Kenya, Rwanda and Uganda—that has a security pact.

Mulongo noted that the summit of heads of state took no concrete positions concerning what action the body would take in the event that the parties behind the crisis did not heed its recommendation.

Instead, the heads of state just noted that the region would not “accept nor standby if violence does not stop or escalates in Burundi”.

To show how uncoordinated on the Burundi issue the EAC members had been, Mulongo claims that Nkurunziza first approached Tanzania for help, which was not forthcoming, compelling him to contact Ugandan authorities.

The Ugandan authorities could also not do much because Burundi has tended to be closer with Tanzania.

Mulongo says for term limits to be lifted without an incident, its proponent need to do thorough mobilisation like happened in Uganda.

He said Nkurunziza, however, went about it forcefully by firing those who criticised him over the move. Niyombare was fired under the same circumstances.

According to Mulongo, the problem with Nkurunziza was his arrogance and intolerance towards critics. He adds that Nkurunziza had also fallen out with sections of the international community, legislature, and civil society.

Mulongo warned that Nkurunziza might be forced to play hard politics now that he has regained control. Already, the ruling CNDD-FDD party has been accused of intimidating the opposition and arming its own militia.“What he needs to do is reach out to his foes and reconcile,” Mulongo said.

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