BUJUMBURA, Burundi — A Burundian military officer announced the overthrow of this central African country’s government on Wednesday, saying that President Pierre Nkurunziza had been dismissed for seeking a third term.
The announcement by Maj. Gen. Godefroid Niyombare came after weeks of protests over the president’s decision to run again in elections scheduled for June. After the coup statement was read on the radio, the capital exploded in celebration.
People jammed downtown Independence Square, climbing on the roofs of cars, waving tree branches and holding hand-written placards reading “He has fallen, he has fallen!”
But it was not immediately clear whether the military had consolidated control.
The coup announcement occurred as the president was in Tanzania to attend a regional summit to discuss the escalating political crisis in Burundi. Nkurunziza declared from the city of Dar es Salaam that the coup attempt had failed.
When he attempted to return from Dar es Salaam on Wednesday, his plane was turned away, according to local media. The international airport in Bujumbura was shut down, and border crossings into neighboring countries were closed.
A U.S. State Department spokesman, Jeff Rathke, said in Washington that he could not confirm that a military coup had taken place but that officials were “watching the situation in Burundi very closely and with great concern.”
There was a heavy military presence in Bujumbura, with soldiers stationed outside the central bank as well as at Radio Publique Africaine, a station critical of the government that broadcast the coup announcement in the early afternoon. The station had been shut down by the ruling party several weeks ago. It was not known whether Burundi’s police, who have used live ammunition against anti-government protesters in recent weeks, would support the ouster of Nkurunziza.
“The police and the intelligence services’ leaders are the most aligned to President Nkurunziza,” said Thierry Vircoulon, project director for Central Africa at the International Crisis Group. “That is where the potential for resistance is.”
Whether the coup will succeed, and whether Burundi will remain stable, may depend on negotiations underway between high-ranking military officers and the ruling party, political analysts said.
Clashes between protesters, security forces and supporters of the president have left at least 20 people dead in recent weeks. More than 50,000 Burundians have fled the country, fearing the political dispute would lead to large-scale violence. Burundi is one of the poorest nations in the world.
Members of the ruling party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure, have attacked protesters and journalists during the upheaval and threatened human rights activists with violence. But there was no sign of them taking action against the residents celebrating Wednesday.
Protesters have said that Nkurunziza’s decision to seek a third term violated the Arusha Accords, which ended the 12-year civil war and limited presidents to two terms. Nkurunziza’s supporters have argued that he was eligible to run again because he was elected to his first term in 2005 by parliament, rather than voters.
Burundi has had a fraught political history since it emerged from civil war a decade ago.
Nkurunziza was the only candidate who competed in the last presidential elections, in 2010, which the opposition boycotted over allegations of fraud and intimidation in earlier local elections.
Wednesday’s attempted coup caught many Burundians off guard, but leaders within the protest movement say they weren’t surprised.
“We knew that there were some parts of the military who were debating taking this action,” said Spageon Ngabo, a spokesman for FOCODE, one of the student groups organizing the protests.
Some main roads in the capital were nearly impassable Wednesday because they were so congested with people celebrating the announcement of the president’s overthrow.
“We don’t need a president who is going to die in power like Mugabe,” said a protester, Josephine Jones Nkunzimana, 27, referring to Robert Mugabe, the longtime president of Zimbabwe.
“We are very happy that the bad president is out; now we can finally go back to work and school. We can go back to everyday life. Hopefully the killing is over,” said a 25-year-old telecommunications worker, Noel Nsanzubumwe.