EAST African leaders condemned an attempted coup in Burundi Wednesday, after a top general said he had deposed President Pierre Nkurunziza while he and regional presidents held talks to end weeks of violent protests.
However, the choice of words, and the fact that no photographs in which Nkurunziza appears were released from the summit, suggests Nkurunziza may not have got the unconditional support he was hoping for.
“The summit condemns the coup in Burundi, it does not solve problems in Burundi,” Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete said at the end of the day-long crisis meeting of the five-nation East African Community (EAC)—made up of Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania and Uganda as well as Burundi.
“We call upon the return to the constitutional order,” Kikwete added, speaking in Tanzania’s coastal city of Dar es Salaam.
Photographs released after the summit, attended by Nkurunziza, didn’t show him. Usually Rwanda president Paul Kagame flickr and Facebook pages, as well as Kenya leader Uhuru Kenyatta’s, are prolific with events that they attend. There are no photos of Nkurunziza on the two leaders’ pages, neither on Uganda president Yoweri Museveni’s page, nor on that of the East African Community.
Though none of them have Nkurunziza – some have South Africa’s Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa, the US top diplomat for Africa Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and the Chairperson of the African Union Commission Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma.
Significantly, a photo on Kagame’s flickr showing the leaders smiling and laughing, suggesting that the occasion was not swamped by gloom over events in Bujumbura. Kikwete’s Facebook has nothing, and his Twitter only carries one post, in Kiswahili, about the summit merely saying it will take place.
A photo from the Dar es Salaam meeting on President Kenyatta’s Facebook page.
Kikwete’s words were also telling; “Given the situation in Burundi conditions are not conducive for elections in Burundi, and the summit calls upon the authorities to postpone the elections for a period not beyond the mandate of the current government,” he said. The AU had taken the same line.
That was at odds with the firm position assumed by Nkurunziza, who had rejected a postponing, probably fearing a delay would work against him and allow the opposition to rally.
Over 20 people have been killed and scores wounded since late April, when Burundi’s ruling party nominated the incumbent to stand for a third term in the June 26 elections, triggering daily protests.
Critics say a third term for Nkurunziza runs counter to both the constitution and the Arusha accords that ended the war.
Nkurunziza left the meeting to return to Burundi, a Tanzanian government spokesman said, and it was said he would address the nation upon his arrival.
However, coup leader General Godefroid Niyombare swiftly ordered the closure of Bujumbura airport and the country’s land borders. Flights in and outside of Bujumbura were cancelled, and there were reports that the lights at the airport had been turned off.
Unconfirmed reports then said Nkurunziza had flown to Uganda. Later in the evening, there were claims he had flown back to Dar es Salaam.
The unrest in Burundi comes with the central African state still recovering from a brutal 13-year civil war that ended in 2006.
Nkurunziza will probably wake up in the morning, and realise he lost the support of his EAC frenemies a long time ago.
The summit calls for elections “in respect of the constitution, the electoral law and the spirit of the Arusha peace agreement,” Kikwete said.
Kikwete had said the same things in April, and by invoking the Arusha agreement, he would relying on a document that Nkurunziza understands differently.
The Arusha agreement that ended the country’s long war limits the Burundi president’s term to two. Nkurunziza says only terms in which a president is elected by popular vote count. He was elected to first term by Parliament.
Over 50,000 Burundians have fled into neighbouring nations, most of them to Rwanda, since the unrest began.
Signs that patience with events in Burundi was running out in the region, were most pronounced on Tuesday when Rwandan Foreign Minister Louise Mushikiwabo warned loudly that anti-Kigali rebels in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) were slipping across the border into Burundi.
“We have information that some FDLR elements have crossed into Burundi from the Congo and might even get involved directly in the continued unrest in the country,” Mushikiwabo said, referring to the Hutu-dominated Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda, known by the French acronym FDLR.
The FDLR has been active in Congo since fleeing from Rwanda after the 1994 genocide, in which as many as 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered over 100 days. Burundi has an ethnic Hutu majority and Tutsi minority, similar to Rwanda.
“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,” Mushikiwabo told a local broadcaster.
Burundi General Godefroid Niyombare, who announced the overthrow of the president Wednesday, is a Hutu like Nkurunziza, making it harder for him to roll back the military take over because it preserves the ethnic equation crafted in Arusha.
An ex-chief of staff of the army, former head of intelligence, and one-time ambassador to Kenya, Niyombare has a reputation for professionalism and integrity, and is respected among rank and file soldiers.
During the civil war, Niyombare fought alongside Nkurunziza, and since then, Niyombare has risen through the ranks becoming deputy head of the army and then chief of staff.
In December 2014 he was appointed head of intelligence, but was sacked in February after signing a letter urging Nkurunziza not to run for a third term.
That is a position closer to the EAC summit’s, and should he agree to a quick transition of power to an elected civilian and to preserve the Arusha agreement, he could get a nod as an interim leader.
Midnight approached with Niyombare still seemingly in-charge, but Thursday might end differently.
Burundians, meanwhile, had a field day mocking Nkurunziza on Twitter, Bloomberg reported, after the announcement that he had been deposed.
“The situation is under control, there is no coup d’etat in Burundi,” Nkurunziza’s office tweeted on Wednesday.
“You’re dreaming; it’s the end,” Jose Lukanda tweeted in response in French, Burundi’s official language. Another of the 29 responses in the first three hours said: “Hehe, carry on tweeting, we’ll come and invade your palace.”
The tweets were a display of the spread of social media in poor African countries where many people access the Internet through their mobile phones. For many, it’s the only time they can directly communicate with their leaders, who rarely venture into public areas and are generally surrounded by bodyguards.
“Pierre Nkurunziza clear off,” said Souleymane. “Enough is enough.”