Burundi's capital at a standstill as battle for control rages

A day after thousands celebrated the launch of a coup, rival armed factions traded gunfire at strategic sites in the capital. President Nkurunziza condemned the attempted coup on state radio from an unknown location on Thursday.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
Police officers stand at a check point in Bujumbura, Burundi May 14, 2015. The head of Burundi's army said on Thursday that an attempted coup had failed and forces loyal to President Pierre Nkurunziza were in control, a day after another general said he had sacked Nkurunziza for seeking an unconstitutional third term in office.

There are no cars on Chaussee du Peuple Murundi and the sidewalks are empty, as are the shuttered shops.

This is one of Bujumbura’s main roadways, its name is an ode to the Burundian people and their struggle for independence in 1962. On Wednesday, thousands of Burundians reclaimed that struggle as they flooded the streets of the capital after hearing that President Pierre Nkurunziza had been ousted in a military coup.

“Peace in Burundi! Peace in Burundi!” people shouted, waving tree branches and flashing peace signs. One man held a picture of Mr. Nkurunziza with the eyes bored out. “I’m so happy that Nkurunziza is out. This is a victory for the people!” cried Alice Nzyimana, a small business owner.  “So many things are going to change in our country.” 

On Thursday, those changes went into reverse: Burundians awoke to the sounds of heavy gunfire amid fighting between rival security forces for control of the capital. And now they are struggling to understand whether yesterday's attempted coup was successful, and who, if anyone, has the upper hand. 

“We’re still waiting. We don’t know who is in power,” says Japher Just, a hotel worker. “We don’t know where the president is or if he will come back into the country. Everything is fluid.”

The confusion began when General Prime Niyongabo, the Army chief of staff, announced on state radio late Wednesday night that he opposed the coup. He said that long unsuccessful negotiations had taken place between those in support of the president and those for the coup, adding that if they “didn’t understand talking, we will make them understand by force.”

The power struggle that is unspooling between the fractured military is reflected in the apparent battle for control of the country’s public and private media stations.

Police today attacked two private radio stations, Radio Publique Africaine (RPA) and Bonesha FM, in order to shut off their broadcasts. RPA had just begun rebroadcasting after the coup was announced on Wednesday following weeks of suppression by government officials. 

Hundreds gathered outside of RPA Wednesday celebrating the re-opening while the military guarded the streets surrounding the radio station. By Thursday morning, the station was set alight by police forces loyal to the president, and broadcasts were again suspended. From miles away, plumes of smoke rose from the radio station.

Shortly after, Patrick Nduwi, the Bonesha FM head said that police hurled grenades and gunfire at the building. The previous night Mr. Nduwi had sensed that the situation was deteriorating: “I don’t know if I’m going to have a radio station anymore.”

Controlling the airwaves

The state broadcaster is the main prize in the battle for media control because it is the sole radio station heard throughout Burundi. On Thursday afternoon, Nkurunziza condemned the coup on state radio and thanked the soldiers that had remained loyal. This was the first time Burundians had heard his voice since the coup was announced. An hour later, the broadcast went silent.

Heavy gunfire could be heard near the radio headquarters suggesting it had been captured by those in support of the coup. 

Later in the afternoon, the state broadcaster started again, playing only a mixture of Christian music and reggae tunes. By nightfall, it was the only other radio station broadcasting besides Maria FM, a small Christian radio station. 

“All I know is going on is that I’m hearing gunshots, otherwise I have no idea what is going on. I’m scared. We’re not eating. We’re not sleeping. We’re terrified,” says Asmain Nduwarguera from his house on Chaussee du Peuple Murundi.

On the street that was thronged with celebratory crowds, only a few are willing to go out to buy quickly diminishing fuel and phone credit. A roadblock cobbled from timber and stones had been set alight nearby in an attempt to block police. The sky clouds with thick flocks of birds every time sporadic gunfire erupts.

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