Am I a coup d’état? A checklist on Burundi’s May 13

With several hours into the night in Bujumbura, Burundi’s configuration of political and military power seems to remain highly unclear. The army is reported to have seized power in an act of emergency, declaring the ousting of incumbent President Nkurunziza as he met with fellow EAC heads of state on a special summit in Dar es Salaam. Major General Godefroid Niyombare, former army chief of staff and head of intelligence presented a declaration destituting Nkurunziza from his duties.

Twitter and other media platforms are abound wildest rumours and unverified speculations. This raises the question: when is a coup a coup? And, from a perspective of the coup (leaders), when do we know it is one? What we know is that the probability of a military takeover has been consistently on the rise in past weeks, as Ken Opalo and I had suggested earlier on. Here is to the facts analysis musings speculations:

While Nkurunziza and a number of so far not identified members of his entourage had embarked to Tanzania for the EAC meeting, a group of army commanders led by Niyombare (ex-FDD) staged the dismissal of the current government, on grounds that the situation (i.e. the popular protests in the capital) had become untenable and demanded bloodless but form intervention on the side of the national army, FDN. Only later on, it was reported that General Ndayirukire (ex-FAB), another high-ranking military was supporting Niyombare. As of now it could not be confirmed which top commanders belong to the coup plotters and whether they represented the ‘frondeur’ wing within CNDD-FDD or a wider collaboration across political preferences.

It is completely unclear to which extent this coup could have been foreseen for today. Obviously, a traveling president represents a welcome occasion to conquer the neuralgic points of state power (incl. media, airports, residences etc.) but what should have made Nkurunziza fly to Tanzania if he had felt the slightest potential this could happen? In a recent BBC interview, the President elder statesman strongman CNDD-FDD head did not leave a glimpse of uncertainty that he was convinced of the constitutional correctness (attested 10 days ago by the Constitutional Court, only the signature of its vice-president missing as much as the court vice-president himself, who fled to Rwanda) of his third term bid. Protesters did not share this opinion, but despite ongoing unrest, Nkurunziza presented himself optimistic. Did he lose confidence and seek a backdoor? If so, why in such an unusual lose-it-all way? Was he badly advised by allies such as General Adolphe Nshmirimana, who allegedly got detained later in the afternoon? Did he over-estimate his forces’ grip over Bujumbura?

Niyombare told France24, he would not know whether Nkurunziza would return, but perhaps the latter may ‘force’ his return given Bujumbura’s airport was shut down and land borders closed. Is there a hidden game at play? Obviously a lot, but this does not have to mean that there is any secret accord including both protagonists. Social media rumour mills had gone as far as announcing a coup against the coup, an attempt to re-instore Nkurunziza in power. Most serious Burundian analysts have not spoken of such. Quid of Rwasa, Nditije, Sinduhije, and all the other opposition leaders? There is some indication they may be in touch with Niyombare but this could easily be confused with declarations of sympathy. Also the population, as cheerful as vast parts of the capital have been today, is not interested in a military government. On the basis of the putschist declaration, the only possible deal with Nkurunziza could aim at an honourful return followed by a transition in which CNDD-FDD names a new candidate.

If this is a coup, who runs it? Sure, Niyombare is at the public helm, a few others seem to be known. But is this FDN? And of so, is it ex-FAB, ex-FNL, and ex-FDD? What about the upcountry regiments? What about the AMISOM and other contingents? A convincing majority of reports indicate that large cross-wing parts of the FDN support the coup and media footage today has not suggested otherwise. However, certain sources have reported discussions within the army. Niyombare, more generally, has cautioned against too early analyses, asking to wait for tomorrow. In the meantime, the police – considered loyal to Nkurunziza – has not opposed the army moves and the infamous imbonerakure have remained largely silent. The latter are CNDD-FDD party youth but in parts an armed para-governmental militia. Their influence outside Bujumbura is considerable and – although Burundi specialist Tomas van Acker has reported the news had reached Gitega – it remains unclear when the coup news will have reached the entirety of the territory.

In Burundi, there have been quite some coups: 1976 Bagaza ousted Micombero, 1987 Buyoya overthrew Bagaza. 1996 Buyoya (who intermittently lost office) overthrew Ntibantunganya. As a footnote, Buyoya is today one of the most high-profile elder statesmen AU envoys. These were (military) coups, in different shades and forms. The dismissal of an incumbent president was followed by a successful (at least for certain time) grab for power and the military was involved, sometimes on both sides of the coup. With today’s events, we cannot be sure. There is massive indication supporting that FDN has taken power under Niyombare, with an intention to put a halt to ongoing protests and what the declaration says, is an unconstitutional attempt to obtain a third presidential mandate. There are encouraging signs that this is happening in a frank mutual understanding between population and army but this reading is so far based on the capital only.

Over the night and in the early morning after, heavy gunfire was reported in the streets of Bujumbura, including close to the national broadcaster RTNB and the presidential palace. Other, private media stations allegedly were attacked over the night and stopped emitting like the pro-Nkurunziza Rema FM the day before. Settling scores? If one is clear, than that media ‘managed’ to become an epicentre of power interests.

Journalist on the ground such as the excellent Maud Jullien and Sonia Rolley have tried to find out details on the negotiating between the Niyombare faction and the FDN’s chief of staff, whose supporters do not seem to have joined the insurrection. The ongoing shooting are a sign for either these talks being stuck or other security forces entering the competition over Bujumbura.

Still, a more secured and thorough analysis will need to wait, at least until the whereabouts of Nkurunziza and efficient non-violent control of the Niyombare group over FDN and Burundi’s territory are confirmed. If not, risks of escalation remain. But if so, the next big question will be called transition.

…and on May 14:

In the meantime, most of this has become meaningless. Niyombare’s troops fight the Nkurunziza loyalists in an intra-army standoff. Rumour and disinformation have made it impossible to dress a proper analysis of what the coming hours will bring.

…and on May 15:


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