Burundi’s former head of intelligence announced he has seized power after more than two weeks of protests sparked by President Pierre Nkurunziza’s plan to seek re-election.
“Burundian President Nkurunziza is no longer president,” Major-General Godefroid Niyombare said in a broadcast on state radio in the capital, Bujumbura, on Wednesday. “We call on political leaders to come together and rethink how the country can be governed and how elections can be organized soon.”
Nkurunziza’s office said the situation in the country was under control. “There is no coup in Burundi,” the office said in a statement on its Twitter account. Nkurunziza is currently in neighboring Tanzania to attend a regional summit convened to discuss the crisis in his nation.
Unrest in Burundi is stoking fears of a return to conflict if rebel groups abandon agreements that ended a civil war 10 years ago between ethnic Hutus and Tutsis that left 300,000 people dead. It also has the potential to destabilize the Great Lakes region that includes the Democratic Republic of Congo, the world’s biggest source of cobalt and Africa’s top copper producer.
“Civil society organizations in Congo have been watching how they’ve been organizing in Burundi so this may spell bad news” for Congolese President Joseph Kabila, Francois Conradie, an analyst at NKC Independent Economists in Paarl, South Africa, said in a phone interview. Opponents of Kabila staged protests in January over what they said were his plans to change the constitution and seek a third term.
Burundi: Key Facts
- Landlocked state is one of the world's poorest nations
- Gross national income: $260
- Poverty rate: 70%
- Population 85% ethnic Hutu, 14% Tutsi
- Civil war ended in 2005, claimed 300,000 lives
Source: World Bank, CIA World Factbook
Burundi, about the size of the U.S. state of Maryland, has a $2.72 billion economy and is home to 10.2 million people. The East African nation is one of the 10 biggest coffee producers in Africa and buyers of its beans include Starbucks Corp. The country also holds 6 percent of the world’s nickel reserves, according to the African Development Bank.
Protests erupted on April 26 after Nkurunziza’s CNDD-FDD party nominated him to run in a presidential vote set for June 26. At least 20 people have died in the violence, according to Pacifique Nininahazwe, head of the Forum for Conscience and Development advocacy group. Critics of Nkurunziza say he’ll flout a two-term limit by running in the elections. The president’s supporters argue that he’s only been popularly elected once because his first term was an appointment by parliament.
Niyombare’s announcement came after police earlier fired live bullets and tear gas at demonstrators who tried to storm parliament and attacked one of the offices of the ruling party.
The attempted coup may trigger factional fighting between rival ethnic groups in the military and police, increasing the probability of a civil war, Robert Besseling, principal Africa analyst at IHS Country Risk in London, said in an e-mailed note.
“The highest risk of ethnic fighting over the next few days will be in Bujumbura, overpopulated rural areas and internally displaced people’s camps along the Democratic Republic of Congo and Tanzanian borders,” he said.
Niyombare was removed as intelligence chief by Nkurunziza in mid-February after only three months in the post. No reason was given for the decision, which Radio France Internationale reported at the time may have stemmed from his opposition to the president seeking a third term. He had previously served as chief of staff of the country’s defense force.
Leaders from the five-nation East African Community -- which includes Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and Burundi -- began meeting in the Tanzanian commercial capital, Dar es Salaam, on Wednesday to discuss the crisis. South African Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa is attending the talks, as is African Union Commission Chairwoman Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, who said last week that it would be impossible to hold elections in the current environment.
Neighboring Rwanda’s foreign minister warned on Tuesday that ethnic-Hutu rebels it alleges were involved in the 1994 Rwandan genocide are infiltrating Burundi, raising concern that the violence will escalate.
“We have appealed to Burundian counterparts and we are assured they will take necessary actions in not allowing FDLR to set up base in Burundi,” Louise Mushikiwabo told a local broadcaster.