On Tuesday morning, Burundi’s political crisis came to a head. As the East African Community (EAC) convened an emergency Heads of State meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, the Burundian army (known by its French acronym FDN) announced a deposition of President Pierre Nkurunziza. Nkurunziza made a controversial announcement on April 26 that he would run for a third term in office, triggering protests and violent backlash in Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, which were continuing well into their second week.
Gen. Godefroid Niyombare, a former ruling party (CNDD-FDD) rebel who has held positions as chief of staff of the FDN and Ambassador to Kenya, dismissed Nkurunziza and his government in favor of a national concord to include voices from civil society, religious leaders, and politicians. Niyombare was fired from his position as internal intelligence chief in February after allegedly penning an internal memo to the president urging him not to seek a third term. Niyombare’s wife was the subject of a February 28 assassination attempt, rumored to have been a scare tactic against his anti-third term stance.
African politics observers quickly noted the parallels to the events of October 2014 in Burkina Faso, where a popular uprising against a leader who tried to put limits on democratic progress was ousted from power and where military actors subsequently attempted to take over. Could Burundi be another Burkina Faso? It’s too soon to tell, but as events continue to unfold, here are some key dynamics to watch:
Burundi’s army and police
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.
After Niyombare’s announcement, the police have reportedly fled the streets. Although the coup is said to be led by Burundi’s security forces, the potential for the police to end up in conflict with the army is great, further aggravating the situation. At the same time, it must be noted that the police are not as well-organized as the army.
It is also possible that, with the help of the police or loyalists in the army, Nkurunziza could return (he is reportedly en route from the EAC meeting) and wrest some power back from the coup-makers.
The Paysans and the Imbonerakure
While crowds in Bujumbura are rejoicing in the streets, it is still an open question as to how the population in the countryside will receive this news. Throughout the past several weeks, the majority of protests have been contained in the capital city and the surrounding province. At the same time more than 50,000 Burundians from across the country have sought refuge in neighboring Rwanda, Tanzania and Democratic Republic of Congo.
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.
Importantly, a military coup does not change certain facts about the situation facing the general Burundian populace: Burundi is one of the poorest and hungriest nations in the world, with the vast majority of its population dependent on subsistence agriculture. While politics in Bujumbura has been the center of attention, local tensions over land ownership did not fade away with Nkurunziza’s third candidacy. In fact, such local divisions present a tool for emerging elites to manipulate the populace. As such, they should be monitored closely, should there be a transitional or ongoing electoral process.
This may become even more complicated by the potential mass return of Burundian refugees who left their homes and land to seek safety abroad. Will they feel safe enough to return? If not, who is the general populace that will remain in camps outside of the country? Will ousted CNDD-FDD supporters flee? Does the mass refugee presence represent any potential asset or cover for political elites to challenge control over the government (remember that both the CNDD-FDD and a main opposition party, the FNL, sprung from rebellions planned and executed from exile)?
Is there an ethnic dimension to the coup?
It is important to note here the fundamentally multi-ethnic character of both the coup-makers (the army), and of the protesters themselves. While there is risk in countries that previously experienced ethnic conflict to return to violence again, building strong institutions that facilitate inter-ethnic cooperation can mitigate this.
Foreign support & intervention
Monday, the Belgian government announced it is temporarily suspending financial support of both Burundi’s elections as well as the Burundian police. It remains to be seen which direction foreign support to the elections will now take: if a transitional government is formed, will donors continue their financial support to the elections, thereby recognizing this government? Or will other donors follow the Belgian government and temporarily suspend their support? Interestingly enough, the U.S. military has conducted a number of training exercises and preparations with the FDN over the past several years. There is the very real concern that violence could rapidly spiral out of control, and if so, an intervention by neighbors or the African Union might occur. The Rwandan government has been particularly outspoken in warning the former CNDD-FDD government against further bloodshed.
Many questions remain unanswered. While it may be too soon to call Burundi another Burkina Faso, certainly the hope is that with the army will continue to act on the general population’s outcry against the allegedly illegitimate 3rd presidential term for Nkurunziza. This could stem the immediate violence of the past few weeks and carve out a space for democratic transition in Burundi. Coup d’etats are inherently undemocratic, yes, but various studies suggest that since the coups that have occurred since 1990 are more likely to be followed by democratic elections. Quite possibly, like Burkina Faso and Niger, Burundi could be the next in a trend of indirect paths for African nations to democratic transition. At the same time, we shouldn’t be too quick to jump to conclusions about what is next. Risks of violence still remain, and the international community, namely the African Union and East African Community, should not retreat. Now is the moment for Burundi’s neighbors to engage and encourage a peaceful dialogue and political resolution between the army, the police, civilians, and President Nkurunziza’s supporters and detractors.
Cara E. Jones is assistant professor of political science at Mary Baldwin College. Alies Rijper is a PhD candidate in international affairs at Durham University. Stephanie Schwartz is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University.