Burundi coup: Fighting in capital as president's forces push back

Supporters of President Pierre Nkurunziza are contesting control of the state broadcasting building and the airport, one day after an army general declared that he was taking control. Burundi fought a civil war that ended a decade ago with a peace accord. 

Berthier Mugiraneza/AP
Burundi army soldiers ride through the streets in an armored vehicle as demonstrators celebrate what they perceive to be an attempted military coup d'etat, in the capital Bujumbura, Burundi Wednesday, May 13, 2015. Police vanished from the streets of Burundi's capital Wednesday as thousands of people celebrated a rumored coup attempt against President Pierre Nkurunziza.

The coup announced in Burundi yesterday hasn't been quickly sealed, increasing the chances of a broader conflict in a country that only emerged from a bloody civil war a decade ago.

Maj. Gen. Godefroid Niyombare announced the coup against President Pierre Nkurunziza yesterday, while the later was in Tanzania. But the former head of intelligence does not appear to have the full backing of Burundi's military.

The BBC reports that "a senior military source" claims that supporters of the president are now back in control of key parts of Bujumbura, the capital.

One senior military source told BBC Afrique that troops loyal to the president had seized back full control of the presidential palace, the national radio and television station, the airport and the centre of Bujumbura.

But this has been contradicted by the coup leaders, one of whom said they were in control of "virtually the entire city" of Bujumbura. "The soldiers who are being deployed are on our side," coup spokesman Venon Ndabaneze also told the AFP news agency.

The scenes of joy in the streets on Wednesday have been replaced by an uneasy silence, interrupted by sporadic gunfire. The streets of Bujumbura are deserted. It has been an anxious night.

Niyombare was fired as intelligence chief a few months ago, allegedly over his opposition to Nkurunziza running again for president. He announced the coup while the president was attending an emergency meeting of the leaders of the East African Community in Dar es Salaam, convened to weigh in on events in Burundi after weeks of street protests. 

The violence in Burundi remains minor by historical standards – about 20 people have died in the conflict so far – but the country's bloody past and ethnic divisions have the nation on edge. In recent weeks, over 50,000 citizens have fled to neighboring countries, fearing that major bloodshed could be on the way.

The precipitating event to the current crisis was Mr. Nkuruniziza's announcement in April that he would seek a third term in office, a position that was backed by the country's supreme court. The agreement that ended Burundi's last civil war included a two-term limit, but the president argues that since his first term was appointed by parliament rather than via a popular election he's eligible for seek another five-year term. 

Very few residents of the country have access to electricity, let alone the internet. So the nation's main means of mass communication is radio, which has so far been pivotal in the conflict. Overnight the popular Radio Publique Africaine was attacked and only two broadcasters now appear to be on the air. The Christian Science Monitor reported from Bujumbura yesterday on the battle for the radio airwaves:

In late April, the Burundian government blocked the signal of some of Burundi’s top radio stations soon after demonstrators took to the streets to protest President Pierre Nkurunziza’s controversial bid for a third term. Bonesha FM and Radio Isanganiro stopped airing outside the capital, and officials completely shut down Radio Publique Africaine (RPA)...

For Burundians, the literal radio silence is a reminder of the 12-year civil war that ended in 2005. By limiting the broadcast to Bujumbura, 90 percent of 3.5 million people are cut from daily access to accurate information, Mr. Nduwimana estimates. Already 50,000 Burundians have fled to neighboring countries, fearing an outbreak of large-scale violence. 

“What prompted the exodus across the borders to Rwanda and Congo is the fear of violence. And because the government then cut off the private media in the interior of the country, fear and rumors run rampant,” says Elizabeth McClintock, a managing partner of CMPartners, a consultancy that works on peace initiatives in Burundi.

Writing for the Washington Post, three academics who study East Africa say if the situation crumbles, it's likely that it will turn on the divided loyalties of the military and police – and on the behavior of Nkurunziza's supporters. 

The military has been noted by us and others as a potential post-conflict success story: ethnically integrated, professional, thanks to massive influxes of cash from bilateral training and development programs, and largely out of the political game in Burundi. Army officers actively protected protesters during the manifestations against the third term (although defining the army as ‘good guys’ here would be ill-advised given their involvement in the December 2014 ‘rebel’ attack in Cibitoke, Northwestern Burundi).

The police played quite a different role. Whereas the army remained neutral, the government deployed the police to protect the interests of Nkurunziza’s regime. They actively and violently cracked down on demonstrators, using live ammunition and teargas against the crowds. In some locations, anger from the demonstrators turned directly against the police, for example when a female police officer was attacked by the crowds on suspicion of shooting at protesters...

As the military coup unfolds, some of the biggest questions for Burundi’s future center on the lesser understood dynamics in the countryside. For example, many of those fleeing abroad cited violent intimidation from the ruling party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure. How will the Imbonerakure react to the challenge to Nkurunziza? Will they remain under the command and control of the ousted CNDD-FDD? Will there be a newly emerging CNDD-FDD?  Early reports suggest a fear that they will retaliate against the general population.

The Voice of America reports on the emerging divisions between the police and the military, as well as splits within the armed forces.

VOA's Gabe Joselow, who is in Bujumbura, said he had heard consistent gunfire coming from the headquarters of the ruling CNDD-FDD political party. Police are guarding the roads in that area. Local residents said police are searching neighborhoods for those perceived as supporting the coup attempt.

"The situation is just extremely tense right now. There’s a lot of uncertainty about who’s in charge, about whether the army has remained united, or if factions are fighting against each other," Joselow said...

Armed forces chief General Prime Niyongabo said the coup has been stopped, but supporters of the coup are disputing that statement.

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