AN attempt to overthrow Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza ended in failure on Friday as coup leaders admitted defeat and were arrested or forced to go on the run from loyalist troops.
General Godefroid Niyombare, who launched the coup in the central African nation earlier in the week, told AFP by telephone that he wanted to give himself up while other top generals were arrested.
The dramatic end to the coup attempt ended 48 hours of uncertainty over who was in charge of the small, landlocked and impoverished nation, which has been gripped by a political crisis over Nkurunziza’s controversial bid to stand for a third consecutive term in office.
Controversial as coups might be, and despite the risk the latest attempt risked plunged the long-troubled country into further crisis, the conduct of the plotters in defeat has caught the attention of many.
A smart professional woman was so surprised that the plotters openly acknowledged failure, and in a swipe at militarism and macho politics, she wrote to Mail & Guardian Africa half in jest saying she would like to marry one of them.
“I want to get married to one of them,” she wrote, “it takes real men to admit defeat”.
Eating humble pie
In a continent where admitting defeat, and tears - especially from men in uniform and with guns - is seen as the ultimate sign of impishness, the Burundi coup maker have been unusually enthusiastic in eating humble pie.
“Personally, I recognise that our movement has failed,” General Cyrille Ndayirukiye, a deputy coup leader, admitted after a day of fierce fighting between rival army factions that the attempted putsch had failed. “We were faced with an overpowering military determination to support the system in power,” he told AFP.
The main man, Niyombare, said, “We have decided to surrender,” then injecting in a plea for mercy, added, “I hope they won’t kill us.”
Plea for mercy
He probably realised that with the coup attempt still fresh, Nkurunziza might not be merciful because a senior police official said Niyombare was still on the run, but that three other pro-coup generals had been detained.
The loyalist police official said they were still alive so they could be put on trial.
The coup leaders’ spokesman, Zenon Ndabaneze, speaking to AFP, confirmed that the putschists had decided to surrender when loyalist troops arrested him, deputy coup leader Ndayirukiye and another senior figure among the mutineers.
“We decided to give ourselves up. We have laid down our arms. We have called the security ministry to tell them we no longer have any arms,” Ndabaneze said, seconds before he could be heard being arrested.
“There will be no foul play. We won’t kill them, we want to keep them so they can be judged,” the police official told AFP after the arrests.
It waits to be seen if indeed Nkurunziza will avoid revenge a purge, but on social media, some voices have claimed the coup has been “good” for him, because he now has the perfect excuse to indefinitely postpone the June elections.
The United Nations (UN) meanwhile announced Friday that more than 100,000 Burundians have fled to neighbouring countries since political violence erupted in April.
UN refugee agency spokeswoman Karin de Gruijl said nearly 70,200 people had fled to Tanzania, 26,300 to Rwanda and nearly 10,000 to the North Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of Congo.
Aides to Burundi’s president said that Nkurunziza—who was abroad when the coup was declared—was back in his home town in the north of the country and was poised to address the nation.
“He arrived yesterday at Ngozi. It is from here that he will address the nation,” a close aide to the president said, contradicting earlier statement from presidential officials that Nkurunziza had returned to Bujumbura.
Nkurunziza was in neighbouring Tanzania for regional talks on Wednesday when the coup was launched, in a culmination of weeks of violent street protests over his bid to cling to power.
Opposition and rights groups insist that it is unconstitutional for Nkurunziza, who has been in office since 2005, to run for more than two terms. The president, however, argues his first term did not count as he was elected by parliament, not directly by the people.
Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader from the Hutu majority and born-again Christian, believes he ascended to the presidency with divine backing.
More than 25 people have been killed and scores wounded since late April, when Burundi’s ruling CNDD-FDD party—which has been accused of intimidating the opposition and arming its own militia—nominated Nkurunziza to stand for re-election in June 26 polls.
It remains unclear, however, how many have died since the launch of the coup, and unrest could continue—with civil society activists calling for a resumption of demonstrations after the failure of the coup.
“Out of principle we are against coups, but we saw that the Burundian people were broadly welcoming of the coup attempt, which show that Burundi needs change,” anti-Nkurunziza activist Vital Nshimirimana told AFP.
The coup attempt had raised fears of a return to widespread violence in the impoverished country, which is still recovering from a 13-year civil war that ended in 2006 and left hundreds of thousands dead.
On Thursday, loyalist troops fought off two major attacks by rival soldiers in an intense battle for control over the strategically important state broadcaster.
The fight for RTNB, the state radio and television broadcaster, was seen as crucial to control the flow of information as Burundi’s main private radio stations and the largest independent television channel were no longer broadcasting.
The bodies of three soldiers were seen by an AFP journalist lying in the street near the scene of the clashes.
The coup announcement drew international criticism, with the United States insisting that Nkurunziza remained “the legitimate president”—even if it has also been firmly critical of his bid to stay in power.
The United Nations Security Council, in emergency talks on the crisis, called for an end to the violence and “the holding of credible elections” while separately, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon condemned “attempts to oust elected governments by military force” and urged calm.
In his message announcing the coup, Niyombare signalled he did not want to take power himself, vowing instead to work for “the resumption of the electoral process in a peaceful and fair environment”.
Niyombare is a highly respected figure who was sacked from his intelligence post in February after he opposed Nkurunziza’s attempt to prolong his 10-year rule.
Asked to decide on the issue of a third term, Burundi’s constitutional court found in the president’s favour, but not before one of the judges fled the country claiming its members were subject to death threats.