Burundi crisis spreads outside the capital; army 'purge' underway following failed coup

Once a symbol of ethnic unity in post-civil war Burundi, the army is now deeply divided, and officers now fear its being purged along ethnic lines.

THE arsonists watched from the side of the hill as a house, belonging to a local boss of Burundi’s ruling party, went up in smoke.

Three soldiers stationed in the area quickly come running in the hope of giving chase, but the arsonists disappear into the surrounding hills and melt into the countryside, leaving behind frustrated troops and a smouldering running under a buckled tin roof.

The house belonged to the vice president of the ruling CNDD-FDD party in the municipality of Mugongomanga, just outside the capital Bujumbura—and an area of strong opposition to President Pierre Nkurunziza’s bid to stand for a third consecutive term in office.

The capital itself has seen more than a month of street protests against the ruling party, which have met with a fierce crackdown by police, backed up by members of the Imbonerakure, the CNDD-FDD’s youth wing that the United Nation’s has branded as a militia.

Close to 40 people have died in the clashes, with scores more wounded or arrested, while opposition leaders, independent journalists and civil society activists have fled the country.

But Rural Bujumbura province, where Butagazwa is situated, has also seen its share of protests—more isolated and sporadic, and largely unnoticed since the shutting down of independent media during fighting and attacks that followed a failed coup attempt on Mat 13.

The road leading to the torched hill-top house, which belonged to Diomedes Ndabahinyuye, is littered with tree trunks and stumps laid by demonstrators to obstruct the traffic.

According to local residents, hundreds of youth had descended on the area early Friday morning, apparently to avenge another protester who was shot and wounded by police the previous week.

“A week ago there were protests, and the police came to disperse them,” said Bruno Gahungu, a brother-in-law of the owner of the burned house. “They accused Diomedes of having called out the police. That’s why they came.”

 Demonstrations spreading? 

Other residents said the protesters had also heard rumours that the party official was hiding weapons, including grenades, in the house.

“Lies,” said the brother-in-law. “If he had had weapons, things would have happened otherwise.”

Still, he admitted that the CNDD-FDD had become a subject of hatred. The owner himself turned up with military reinforcements, and said the attack had not come as a surprise because of recent threats.

Further down the road, demonstrators said they usually live “in harmony” with members of the CNDD-FDD.

“But he had gone too far and we wanted to give a warning to all those tempted to do the same,” said one protester in the nearby village of Ijenda. He would not give his name.

Here, he says, protests are taking place on a near-daily basis, “to show that even in the countryside, people do not want the third term”.

Escalating violence in the provinces is bad news for the president, who over the past week appears to have only just managed to gain the upper hand over demonstrators in several districts of the capital.

It will also boost the spirits of the opposition, who maintain that the only solution to the crisis is for Nkurunziza to back down and agree to pass the presidency of the small central African nation to somebody else.

President Nkurunziza “had promised to Burundians that it would be two terms, and now he wants three,” complained a local roadside vegetable seller. “That’s what keeps us from having peace.”

Nkurunziza hopes to win a third term in elections due later this month, but opponents say his candidacy is unconstitutional and goes against the 2006 Arusha peace deal that ended 13 years of civil war.

Whatever happens next, the damage has been done, and Nkurunziza’s own response, especially to the failed coup against, can only compound the country’s problems.

End of ethnic unity

Once a symbol of ethnic unity in post-civil war Burundi, the army is now deeply divided and faces a growing climate of fear after a failed coup by generals trying to foil his continued stay in office in the central African nation.

 The Burundi military faces a growing climate of fear after a failed coup by generals in the central African nation. (Photo/AFP).

Coup leader General Godefroid Niyombare is now on the run, Defence Minister Cyrille Ndayirukiye has been arrested and hundreds of other alleged coup plotters are absconding or in jail.  

Officers now fear the army is being purged along ethnic lines. “I cannot sleep, I cannot eat, I almost fled the country several times,” said one senior officer, speaking on condition of anonymity, adding that he has twice evaded arrest. The officer is a former member of the pre-civil war army, the FAB, which was dominated by ethnic Tutsis and pitted against a host of Hutu rebel groups in the 1993-2006 civil war. 

Officers are worried that Tutsi ex-FAB members are now being specifically purged, targeted on the pretext that they were complicit in the attempted putsch. “No soldier of the former FAB, from private to general, feels safe,” said the officer, despite the fact that both Hutus and Tutsis are among the alleged coup plotters on the run or in jail. 

Arrests increasing

Coup leader Niyombare—who relatives and intelligence sources say has sought refuge elsewhere in the region—is a Hutu, who fought alongside President Nkurunziza in the CNDD-FDD Hutu rebel group that is now the ruling party. 

About 150 members of the 11th Battalion, accused of spearheading May’s coup attempt, are in jail but sources say that perhaps 300 others from the same unit have absconded with their weapons. 

For two weeks, arrests have been increasing, with most of those detained former FAB soldiers, among them two colonels, a major and a captain, according to the Association for the Protection of Prisoners and Detainees, which said other officers had gone missing. “We, the former FAB, are the only ones targeted, while those from the CNDD-FDD are not worried,” said another officer, referring to the president’s party. 

 ‘Destroying integration’ 

 The ethnic parity of the army—made up of equal numbers of Hutu and Tutsi in a country where the population is 85% Hutu—is considered a fundamental achievement of peace and a guarantee of stability. The wounds inflicted on the army by the political crisis will be slow to heal and the consequences for Burundi could be explosive. 

Army spokesman Gaspard Baratuza insisted that “only those who are suspected of involvement in the attempted coup are arrested”. But an outside analyst dismissed the claim with a stark warning over the growing divisions. “The regime is destroying one of Nkurunziza’s greatest achievements since taking office: the integration of former Hutu rebels and Tutsi ex-soldiers,” the unnamed analyst said.

Former defence minister Pontien Gaciyubwenge, an ex-FAB Tutsi general, proclaimed his neutrality during the coup and was sacked soon afterwards, and then fled abroad. His chief of staff Prime Niyongabo, a former Hutu rebel of the CNDD-FDD, had urged him to join the side of the police in opposing the coup and the anti-third term protests. 

An officer warned things could get far worse if tensions in the army were not resolved. “The day they really divide the army, it will not be like these protests we have experienced,” the officer said. “That will be the end of Burundi as a nation.”

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