In Burundi, arrests appear to stymie coup, but uncertainty remains

A presidential spokesman said the coup leader was still at large. President Nkurunziza, meanwhile, was said to have returned to Burundi from Tanzania.

Goran Tomasevic/Reuters
Burundians headed out in the quiet capital of Bujumbura Friday, after a coup attempt apparently failed. Authorities have arrested three generals for their role, but the leader of the bid to overthrow President Pierre Nkurunziza was 'still on the run,' a presidential spokesman said on Friday.

Leaders of an attempted coup in Burundi were arrested Friday after forces loyal to the president maintained control of the capital, bringing to an end any immediate change in power but leaving the country in a high state of uncertainty.

Presidential spokesman Gervais Abayeho, who made the announcement, also told reporters that Maj. Gen. Godefroid Niyombare, who led the coup and said Wednesday that he was dismissing President Pierre Nkurunziza, was still on the run.

One of the arrested coup leaders, Gen. Cyrille Ndayirukiye, told Agence France-Presse hours before that he recognized that the bid to overthrow Mr. Nkurunziza while he was out of the country had failed.

“We were faced with an overpowering military determination to support the system in power,” he said.

Gunfire rang throughout the capital yesterday as factions of the Army and police fought over the strategically important state radio station. Only a day earlier, thousands took to the streets to celebrate the attempted coup.

News of Nkurunziza’s return to Burundi – he is rumored to be in the northern city of Ngozi, according to the Associated Press – also indicates that the government may be back in control after two days of confusion. He is expected to address the nation at some point on Friday.

Nkurunziza had been in Tanzania for a meeting of East African leaders to discuss the two weeks of protests in the capital of Bujumbura over his bid to seek a third term, a move critics says violates the Constitution and the civil war peace treaty agreement from 2005.

The Constitution mandates that the president can hold office for only two terms. But Nkurunziza argues that his first term should not count because he was not democratically voted in for his first term.

It is unclear whether elections set for June 26 will still take place. The African Union – which denounced the coup attempt – had recommended before the coup that Burundi postpone the vote. Nkurunziza had dismissed those recommendations. But divides among the Army and police, as well as the number of Burundians who celebrated the overthrow, leave many uncertain as to what lies ahead for the country.

The fractures within the Army are especially alarming, given its high standing among Burundians. Cara E. Jones and Stephanie Schwartz foresaw the potential splits in late April:

A key player to watch as events unfold in Bujumbura is the national army, known by its French acronym FDN. Burundi’s post war army is considered one the great success stories on the African continent. Comprised of former national army and CNDD-FDD rebel forces who were primary actors in Burundi’s last civil war, the army is now well-integrated and a major contributor to African Union peacekeeping missions in Somalia and Central African Republic. Training by American, Dutch, and other international forces have led to a professional, established and respectful military, in direct contrast to military coups of the past.

By all accounts, the FDN has protected protesters and has not engaged in willful violence toward the opposition, in stark contrast to the national police and internal security services. While this respect for democracy seems healthy, the army has thus far failed to call for governmental accountability. This could engender a low-intensity conflict between the opposition and the security forces in the country, where the FDN witnesses atrocities. It is also possible that pro- and anti-third term factions within the army could split.

There had been fear that the coup, and the protests that led up to it, could plunge Burundi further into violence not seen since the 12-year civil war ended in 2005. As of Wednesday, the United Nations reported that 70,000 people had fled into neighboring countries. That number is likely to increase in coming days. 

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