‘Only the People Control the Country Right Now’

As protesters rejoice the toppling of Burundi’s president, prospects for peace in the restive country remain very much uncertain.


BUJUMBURA, Burundi — Thousands of people stormed the streets, blowing whistles and screaming into megaphones, as the news spread across Burundi’s capital city of Bujumbura. Just hours after President Pierre Nkurunziza left the country to attend a meeting of East African leaders in Tanzania on May 13, Maj. Gen. Godefroid Niyombare announced that the president’s time in office had come to an abrupt end.

“President Nkurunziza is dismissed,” General Niyombare said around lunchtime on Wednesday, surrounded by several senior police and army officials, including a former defense minister. “His government is dismissed too.”

For many, the announcement was a welcomed response to sustained anti-government demonstrations. Protests have paralyzed the capital for nearly three weeks, after Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for a third term in the presidential elections on June 26 — a move which opponents say is illegal. Yet, on Thursday, it was clear that the celebrations were premature as a security force with divided loyalties fought violently for control of the capital.

Burundi has a long history of political unrest. Between 1993 and 2005, the country fissured during a 13-year civil war that pitted Tutsis against Hutus, and left some 300,000 dead. The ethnic loyalties that sparked the war have largely dissolved today (in accordance with the peace agreement, the army cannot comprise more than 50 percent of any one ethnic group). In fact, those opposed to Nkurunziza’s third term come from all ethnicities. Yet the president, who is Hutu, still has his supporters — primarily the police, and some within the military — who are unwilling to stand on the sidelines as their elected leader is toppled. It is as yet unclear whether the attempted sacking of Nkurunziza by General Niyombare marks the end of a protest movement, or the beginning of a more enduring conflict.

The protests began on April 26, a day after Nkurunziza announced he’d run for a third term. Since then, anti-government protesters have amassed each morning in the streets — many awaking after snatching just a few hours of sleep. During the demonstrations, protesters had feared being beaten, arrested, or even killed by police and militant young loyalists. At night, they took turns standing guard — armed with whistles and mobile phones to warn neighbors of impending attacks. Each day, crowds of energetic young men, wearing makeshift masks and carrying fake guns, then gathered in small pockets throughout the city and began to march.

The army was deployed to the streets on the second day of protests. Much-respected by civilians, it sought to play a valuable mediation role. Yet the protests turned violent and unpredictable, particularly after Burundi’s constitutional court backed the president’s bid for re-election last week. On Monday, three people were killed and dozens more wounded in clashes between police and demonstrators. In all, at least 20 people have died since the demonstrations began.

“Because the police had been attacking the demonstrators for a while, people in those neighborhoods were very anxious, very tired,” said Ketty Nivyabandi, a 36-year-old mother of two, after the announcement of the coup. She attended her first march on Sunday, a peaceful, female-only march that managed to reach the center of town.

“We needed to put peace back into the protest,” she said. “What we did was revolutionary.”

For Burundians like Ketty, General Niyombare’s actions on Wednesday were simply a response to Nkurunziza’s defiance of the constitution — and the culmination of a justified popular movement. Though many jubilant protestors return to their homes, it remains unclear who is in charge of the country.

The military is divided, and many still back the president. The army’s chief of staff, Maj. Gen. Prime Niyongabo, for example, said on state radio late on Wednesday that he is “against Maj. Gen. Niyombare.”

“This coup attempt has been foiled,” said a statement yesterday from Nkurunziza posted on the president’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. “These people, who read the coup announcement on the radio, are being hunted by defence and security forces so that they can be brought to justice.”

On Thursday, rival troops clashed in the capital. According to the most recent reports, Nkurunziza returned to Burundi today (though his location remains uncertain) and soldiers loyal to him control much of the capital.

In the vacuum of security, some analysts fear reprisal attacks by loyalist members of the police force and the Imbonerakure, the ruling party’s much-feared youth wing, against those perceived to be anti-government. Late Wednesday, men in police uniforms attacked and set fire to the influential, independent African Public Radio station, which in the past had reported on government efforts to silence critics. On Thursday, another independent radio station, Bonesha, was attacked and set alight by uniformed men with Kalashnikovs and grenades. At the time of writing, all national independent radio stations were off air.

Tutsis outside the capital may be particularly vulnerable to attacks. “The Imbonerakure would go for easy targets,” said one political analyst in the capital, who asked not to be named. “Tutsi opposition are isolated and need to be protected,” he said of those living in the countryside.

Though fighting calmed on Thursday evening, control of the capital remains very much uncertain. As civilians prepare for potentially another day of clashes between rival security forces, some have begun constructing barricades on the streets to protect themselves.

For Moustang Habimana, one of the demonstrators camped out on the streets, the prospect for a stable political transition in the short term is all but dead.

“Only the people,” he said, “control the country right now.”

Jennifer Huxta/AFP/Getty Images

Jessica Hatcher is a freelance journalist working in East Africa.

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