Red or yellow card? Burundi's Nkurunziza loved playing football; in the end he scored an own goal

Burundi president may have felt he was on strong ground with his controversial third term bid--in the end it shifted dramatically under him.

IT will be a few more hours before it is clear whether the Burundi military has overthrown controversial President Pierre Nkurunziza as they claimed earlier Wednesday.

If he is indeed gone, by the time the dust has cleared, the wreckage of  Nkurunziza’s 10-year reign will lie all around, the avocado and football-loving leader toppled by the one institution that had been widely perceived as neutral.

The born-again Christian who believed he had a divine right to rule earlier Wednesday seemed to most likely have been brought down by gun-wielding mortals, leaving him stranded in neighbouring Tanzania where he had been attending a meeting ironically called to chart a way out of a self-inflicted crisis.

“Petero’s” own goal

The man known as “Petero” in some corners plays football everyday with his team known as the Hallelujah FC, but he ended up scoring a spectacular own goal following a controversial bid to stand for a third term.

Daily protests had claimed over 20 lives since April, the deaths blamed on heavy-handed partisan police while tens of thousands fled, fearing attacks by pro-regime militia, sucking in the region. 

It was a military general who sought to deliver the coup de grace on Wednesday.

“The masses have decided to take into their own hands the destiny of the nation to remedy this unconstitutional environment into which Burundi has been plunged,” said Maj Gen Godefroid Niyombareh in a statement.

“The masses vigorously and tenaciously reject President Nkurunziza’s third term mandate in accordance with the constitution and the Arusha Accord. President Pierre Nkurunziza has been relieved of his duties. The government is overthrown.”

The Arusha accords signed in 2005 provided for a delicate power-sharing between the two main ethnic groups, the Hutus and Tutsis, but also the feuding political groupings, helping end a ruinous civil war that claimed the lives of 300,000 people. The deal also provided the basis for the two-term limit that Nkurunziza’s opponents have invoked.

A Burundi protester makes his point.

Regime loyalists put up a spirited defence that the coup had failed, with pro-government soldiers ringing the national broadcaster, and the presidency furiously tweeting that the situation was under control, but by late Wednesday it was increasingly looking like all that remained was how the pie would be shared out between factions in the disciplined forces.

When news of the coup filtered through, Nkurunziza, 51, was attending a high-level summit called by the five-member East African Community (EAC) in Dar es Salaam—surprisingly so given the precarious position he has found himself since he finally confirmed his much-rumoured bid.

The coup maker

Niyombareh was head of the country’s secret services until he was dismissed silently in February after only three months in, after he wrote to Nkurunziza urging him to abandon his pursuit for a third mandate.

A Hutu like the deposed president, he has had a love-hate relationship with Nkurunziza in recent years, having been army chief of staff until he fell out of favour in 2013.

Coup leader Niyombareh.

He was then picked as ambassador to Nairobi, a key regional posting before his short-lived appointment as spy boss late last year.

He was one of several chiefs forced out in order to neuter an internal ruling party rebellion over Nkurunziza’s third term bid. 

He had taken several months to announce his candidacy, as he sought the backing of key allies, many of them cadres from his time as a rebel leader, strengthening his standing enough to allow him to push back against the international storm that inevitably followed.

He would thus have been emboldened enough to venture out of his country as the protests swirled, and attended the crisis meeting with the presidents of Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) from a perceived position of strength.

South African deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa was also in attendance, but the summit was eventually called off mid-stream.

Soldiers call it

But the pivotal factor was always likely to be the army. Soldiers had been seen acting as a buffer between protesters, the police and the feared youth wing of the ruling party known as Imbonerakure, and their neutrality was seen as key to continued stability.

As part of the Arusha Agreement, which paved the way for a final peace, the army and police were to be reformed with equal numbers of Tutsi and Hutu, in a country where Hutus make up some 85% of the people.

The reformed army has succeeded in drawing the respect of the people, while its participation in peacekeeping missions abroad such as in Somalia against the Al-Shabaab did its image tremendous good.

However, analysts said there was a struggle between soldiers who saw the army’s role as remaining politically neutral, and those who saw its calling as following civilian orders without question.

In a recent report, the International Crisis Group (ICG) said that commanders and the deputies were “rarely of the same ethnic group—and even less of the same political persuasion”.

Allegiances dating back to the civil war days were still very much alive, it noted, but it was those differences that prevented the two groups from coming together for a coup.

This gap would only have been bridged by a fear of worsened instability—and on Wednesday there were reports that the ranks of the protesters were about to swell dramatically, according to a diplomat in the capital Bujumbura.

This may have triggered Niyombareh’s move, but the internal divisions in the army had already played out in the open earlier.

Defence minister General Pontien Gaciyubwenge, a Tutsi, had last week said the army would remain neutral, but a day after, the new army chief of staff General Prime Niyobango, a Hutu, said the military was beholden to the civilian leadership.

But Nkurunziza, a man who likes to take off for the countryside, where he gets a hoe and goes gardening, was also popular in the rural areas where he has instituted a raft of social programmes, and would have felt reasonably confident of trouncing an opposition that has remained weak.

But as events turned out, he would have been better off cashing his retirement cheque.   

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