Over 100 coups and attempts in Africa; Burundi soldiers missed the memo - don't do it when president is abroad

Unlike burglars who like to visit when you are away, African putschists prefer to seize incumbents and parade them as trophies of war.

IN the last two days the situation in Burundi remained fluid, the whereabouts of president Pierre Nkurunziza remained a mystery, but he was Friday set to make a national address, marking a return to power following two days of drama.

Forces loyal to him have regained control of the situation, with the powerful general who authored the coup said to be on the run.

When the coup attempt happened on Wednesday Nkurunziza was in Tanzania, Nkurunziza  attending an East African Community heads of state summit called to discuss the Burundi crisis. 

But while the apparently failed Burundi coup reminds us that attempts at deposing African incumbents are frequent, with close to 100 attempts and successful coups recorded in the region since 1960, the removal of a leader while abroad is actually quite rare - a very counter-intuitive fact.

By a Mail & Guardian Africa count, just about one in five of successful coups have involved absentee leaders, suggesting that unlike the propensity for burglars to visit when you are away, putschists instead prefer to seize the incumbent as a trophy of war and to have them show the new powers around the presidential palace.

At first glance it might seem easier to make a successful  coup against a strongman while he is away, but as the Nkurunziza fightback shows, it actually leaves him free to organise to take back power. Cornering him in State House allows mutineering troops to arrest him, or even kill him, removing him definitively from contention.

Ironically, the earliest recorded removal of an absent incumbent since 1960 was in Burundi, when King Mwambutsa Bangiriceng was in 1965 deposed by army officers while away in Switzerland.   

He would die in his European sanctuary in 1977, kickstarting the end of the country’s constitutional monarchy.

But it was the ouster of Ghanaian pan-Africanist icon Kwame Nkrumah in February 1966 that brought the phenomenon of African absentee evictions to world attention. 

Nkrumah owed much of his later education to the West, from where he fine-tuned his pan-Africanist credentials, but also honed leanings towards socialism.

He was overthrown while on an official visit to North Vietnam and China, and would for years bitterly blame the Americans. He did not return to Ghana, living in exile as honorary co-president of Guinea. He died in Romania in 1972.

Libya’s King Idris I was deposed in September 1969 by army officers led by Muammar Gaddafi while being treated in Turkey. He had during his stint in office angered pan-Arabists  by retaining close ties with the West, even after the Suez Crisis.

Libya’s only modern-day monarch, he had abdicated in favour of his son who was set to take over the next day. Idris died in Cairo in 1983. 

Uganda’s Milton Obote was five years into his presidency ousted by Idi Amin while in Singapore attending a Commonwealth summit. He had noticeably shifted to the left, and claims remain that Western governments - especially Britain and Israel - played a role in that 1971 coup.

He returned to office in 1980, professing free market policies before he was relieved of his duties five years later again by the army.

Former Ghanaian prime minister Kofi Busia was overthrown in 1972 while undergoing treatment in Britain, having repudiated most of Nkrumah’s Marxist policies.

Nigeria’s Yakubu Gowon, a military man, was in Kampala at an Organisation of African Unity (the precursor to the African Union) summit in 1975 when he was deposed by army officers, sending him into exile in the UK.

His time in office had been marked by an economic boom fuelled by oil revenues, but also by extensive graft. He has since reinvented himself as an African elder statesman, and can be sighted in election observer missions when not manning his foundation.

The first president of Seychelles, James Mancham, was deposed while at a Commonwealth Summit in London in 1977, just a year after Britain granted the islands independence. He would later pen a book, Paradise Raped: life, love, and power in the Seychelles, telling of his rise and fall.

Ange-Félix Patassé, who is seen as the Central African Republic’s (CAR) first credibly elected president, was ousted in 1993 while in Niger, having lost the support of the influential French.

He returned from exile in Togo in 2008 to vie in elections against the man who deposed him, Francois Bozize, but lost by a distance to him. 

Mauritania’s Maaouya Ould Sid’Ahmed Taya was also removed in 2005 while attending the burial of Saudi Arabia’s king Fahd in 2005. He now lives in Qatar, teaching at a military school.

But while the roots of most of these coups could be traceable global geopolitics including the Cold War, Burundi’s crisis seems to have been the result of regional issues.

Key player Rwanda has for example been concerned at the potential for former Hutu rebels linked to the 1994, and who are hiding out in the DR Congo, to use Burundi as a launching pad for attacks, while there was also alarm over the potential for destabilisation in the volatile Great Lakes region. 

In the last two months alone, over 70,000 Burundians have fled as refugees to neighbouring countries, most of them to Rwanda, a small densely populated country that analysts say does not have the carrying capacity for large numbers of refugees.

While still early in the day, but it won’t be long before it becomes clearer how political these regional issues have informed the Burundi crisis.

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