48 hours: Inside Burundi coup that could have been but never was

Saturday May 16 2015

Presidents Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya, Paul Kagame of Rwanda and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda were meeting at State House, Dar es Salaam, when their host, President Jakaya Kikwete, excused himself to attend to an urgent message. 

The regional leaders, together with South Africa’s Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa and African Union Commission Chairperson Nkozasana Dlamini Zuma were discussing a briefing received earlier from their foreign affairs ministers over the political crisis in Burundi.

At the Serena Dar es Salaam Hotel only two kilometres down the road, Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza and his entourage sat, waiting for a signal to come and join his fellow heads of state.

President Nkurunziza had appeared calm and relaxed when he walked off the plane at the rain-swept Julius Nyerere International Airport a few hours earlier but many members of his entourage were anxious.

Street protests against Nkurunziza’s attempt to stand for a third term in office had persisted into a third week, despite the death toll rising to at least 20. More than 70,000 had fled the country and the number was rising by the hour.

With the exception of China and Russia, which had blocked a UN Security Council resolution condemning his decision to stay on, the international community was almost unanimous in its view that a third term for Nkurunziza violated the letter and spirit of the country’s Constitution and the Arusha Agreement that ended more than a decade of civil war in the country.


Officials from the United Kingdom, the United States, Belgium, South Africa, and the African Union, among others, had expressed reservations about the third term.

Rwanda, inundated with refugees fleeing from Burundi and worried about the spillover effects of the crisis, had openly asked authorities in Bujumbura to get a grip on things.

READ: Kigali says Burundi security situation affecting Rwanda

A Constitutional Court ruling confirming the legality of his candidature had neither calmed the streets of the capital Bujumbura nor the countryside, where thousands continued to vote with their feet, fleeing to neighbouring countries, fearful of a return to the ethnic violence that this part of the world knows only too well.

President Nkurunziza had met East African foreign affairs ministers in Bujumbura and agreed to attend the Dar es Salaam emergency summit to find a solution to the problem. He’d gone ahead to accept the nomination of his ruling CNDD-FDD political party and said elections would go ahead as earlier scheduled, despite growing pressure to postpone them. Nkurunziza had arrived in Dar es Salaam with his defences fortified.

READ: EAC ministers in emergency summit on Burundi -VIDEO

Despite his bullish position, the Burundi leader was isolated in the region and abroad, and his troops were failing to clear the crowds of protestors in restive neighbourhoods of Bujumbura.

On May 10, Mothers’ Day, the women in Bujumbura had joined the anti-third term protests and achieved two major successes: They had been able to march peacefully without encountering the tear gas and live bullets other (mostly male) protesters had become accustomed to; and they had been able to march all the way to Independence Square in the heart of the capital, the symbolic small green space that had become an oasis of hope —in the minds of protesters, the Tahrir Square of their Bujumbura Spring.

Even the most fearsome strongmen have been known to cower in front of their mothers; now the mothers, daughters and sisters of Bujumbura had turned against the third term, adding their voices to the protesters and the influential Catholic Church.

Members of President Nkurunziza’s entourage had another reason to be anxious. A legal brief prepared for the attention of the heads of states, which this newspaper has seen, raised questions about the Constitutional Court ruling. A highly placed source familiar with the matter confirmed that at least one of the visiting heads of state had independently commissioned a legal opinion, which also questioned the legality of a third term bid.

The heads of state could not, of course, reverse the ruling — sovereignty being what it is — but the legal briefs and allegations of intimidation of the Court by its vice president meant that the incumbent could not use the ruling as a magic bullet. The solution to the crisis had to be political, which meant concessions. What would those be?

READ: Exiled Burundian judge Sylvere Nimpagaritse speaks out

While the heads of state were debating possible answers, a completely new set of questions emerged.

Outside the meeting room, President Kikwete, had been receiving an urgent intelligence briefing. Kikwete was convening the meeting in his capacity as chairperson of the East African Community, a few months before he retires at the end of his second term. But the Tanzanian leader is no stranger to the politics of Burundi, having played key roles in his previous positions in intelligence, and as foreign affairs minister during the Burundi Peace Process.

Clearly disturbed by the briefing, President Kikwete immediately convened an emergency informal meeting with Foreign Affairs Minister Bernard Membe and the head of the Tanzania Intelligence and Security Services Othman Rashid, just outside the VIP lounge where the heads of state and their ministers were meeting.

After about 15 minutes, Kikwete and Mr Membe returned to the VIP lounge and made the announcement: A coup had taken place in Burundi.

Down the road at the Serena Hotel, the news had been broken to President Nkurunziza and members of his entourage were frantically working the phones to rally their supporters back in Burundi and suppress the coup.

Some 1,500 kilometres to the west of Dar es Salaam, Bujumbura had erupted into chaotic scenes. Maj Gen Godefroid Niyombara had taken to a private radio station to announce that the army had dismissed President Nkurunziza.

READ: Top Burundi general announces overthrow of president

Few people familiar with the country and its political-military history were surprised by the news of the coup. Since Independence from Belgium on July 1, 1962, Burundi has gone through at least four coups d’état and the assassinations of three heads of state.

The names of many major streets in Bujumbura read like chapters in a graphic novel of political violence: Chaussée Rwagasore and Avenue Pierre Ngendandumwe, named after assassinated politicians.

Boulevard du 28 Novembre, named after the day, in 1966, when Tutsi army captain and prime minister Michel Micombero deposed Prince Ntare in the first successful coup, abolished the constitutional monarchy and declared Burundi a republic. He, of course, named himself president, becoming the first of many military rulers of the small country.

Even fewer people were surprised by the identity of the coup leader. Popular and widely respected as a professional soldier, Maj-Gen Niyombare, 46, was born and raised in Kamenge, a Bujumbura suburb, and attended the same university as President Nkurunziza in the capital.

Things fall apart

They both became senior commanders of the National Council for the Defence of Democracy–Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) and, once in power, Niyombare held senior positions as head of the army, ambassador to Kenya, and head of the intelligence service.

It was in this last posting that things began to fall apart between the two. In February 2015, only three months after his appointment, Maj Gen Niyombara sent a memo to President Nkurunziza advising him against running for a third term and warning that the armed forces could act unpredictably if they were ordered to suppress the inevitable protests the opposition had been threatening for weeks.

President Nkurunziza responded almost instantly by dismissing Maj Gen Niyombara but a warning shot had been fired across the president’s bows and now, less than two months later, Niyombara had emerged from the cold to light things up.

In his book, Coup d’état: A Practical Handbook, American military historian Edward Nicolae Luttwak details the ingredients necessary for a successful coup, coalesced around “the infiltration of a small, but critical, segment of the state apparatus, which is then used to displace the government from its control of the remainder.”

By their nature, coups depend on leverage. A small group, acting with speed, supported by the element of surprise, pick the right moment to strike a swift blow in strategic spots and then use the power of propaganda to convince the larger force to throw its lot in with it.

In the years to come, contemporary military historians and instructors at defence colleges will examine the events in Burundi and compile an addendum on how not to attempt a coup.

With President Nkurunziza away in Tanzania, the coup plotters seized an early advantage on the morning of Wednesday May 13 and made their move.

“President Pierre Nkurunziza is removed from office, the government is dissolved,” Maj Gen Niyombare said in a broadcast carried on two private radio stations.

The decision, he said, had been prompted by Nkurunziza’s pursuit of a third term and the repression of dissent towards the move. The streets of Bujumbura erupted in joyous scenes as protestors hugged and kissed soldiers involved in the coup.

It appears the coup plotters hoped to ride the wave of protests, with Maj Gen Niyombare promising to consult civil society and opposition groups about a transitional government.

While the crowds and the plotters jubilated alongside protestors, the pro-Nkurunziza camp went to work with army chief General Prime Niyongabo leading the military effort and Nkurunziza’s advisor and right-hand man Willy Nyamitwe working the media and diplomatic channels.

It is not clear what role General Adolphe Nshimirimana, a former intelligence chief widely seen as the regime enforcer, was playing behind the scenes.

For unclear reasons, the coup plotters did not immediately seek to seize the national radio and television broadcaster, the presidential palace, or the national airport to the northwest of the city.

“It is possible that they did not have the numbers or the materiel to attack these installations,” a Burundian former military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said. “Either that, or they expected the coup to have popular appeal and be bloodless. The correct strategy would have been to attack, hold the positions, then negotiate from a position of strength.”

By Wednesday afternoon, Maj Gen Niyombare and his fellow conspirators including former defence minister Cyrille Ndayirukiye were reaching out to other senior army officers and asking them to support the coup.

It was too late.

In Dar es Salaam, news of the coup had not gone down well with the heads of state, according to diplomatic sources. On the one hand, the coup made a mockery of the regional summit since decisions taken there could not be binding on a new government that would emerge from the coup. On the other hand, they had some responsibility on their shoulders because the summit was the reason President Nkurunziza had left Burundi and created the vacuum for the coup.

In any case, while African leaders can look the other way as constitutions and judicial processes are manipulated, they and the African Union, usually rally around incumbents faced with coups.

With the summit cut short by events in Burundi, the heads of state issued a joint communiqué condemning the coup, calling for elections to be postponed, and warning that they would intervene if violence continued. President Museveni was so upset, sources in Dar es Salaam said, that he headed straight for the airport, his presidential jet, and back to Uganda, as his counterparts addressed the media.

READ: EAC threatens to suspend Burundi as rivals battle to control the capital

The coup condemnation from the region, and those that followed from other countries, was the cue many senior army officers had been waiting for as they sat on the fence in Burundi.

For many, the considerations must have been personal. Many former rebels received free land from President Nkurunziza’s government in and around Bujumbura, a regional diplomat based in the capital says. Many of those plots now sport new houses and commercial buildings bought off the decent salaries many officers and men earn from Burundi’s involvement in the African Union Peacekeeping Mission to Somalia, Amisom.

While some of them share the concerns about the risks of a third term for the incumbent to the fragile constitutional order in the country, few appear to have been willing to bet their houses on the success of the coup.

“[CNDD-FDD] is a very complicated organisation,” a diplomat with 15 years’ experience in the Great Lakes region says. “No single person controls it but what it has done is to appease all tendencies. Many of them don’t like [Nkurunziza] but they don’t hate him enough to risk everything.”

By late afternoon on Wednesday, the coup plotters were making little headway in their negotiations with the fence-sitters and loyalists.

On the other hand the loyalists, boosted by the regional condemnation of the coup, had upped their propaganda. Mr Nyaitwe laughed off the coup attempt as a “joke” and said President Nkurunziza was, in fact, on his way home from Dar es Salaam.

Panicked, the coup plotters ordered the airport and the land borders closed immediately. The small airport near Lake Tanganyika was quickly emptied and commercial airlines called off their flights as putschist soldiers announced they were finally in control of the facility.

That announcement, the failing light, and memories of the shooting down, in 1994 at Kanombe Airport in Kigali, of a presidential jet in which President Cyprien Ntaryamira was killed alongside his Rwandan counterpart, convinced the loyalists to call off the president’s planned return.

Mr Nkurunziza and his entourage returned to the Serena Hotel in Dar es Salaam for an unscheduled check-in for the night.

READ: Burundi president stuck in Tanzania

By nightfall, the two rival groups of soldiers had played out to a draw but the loyalists retained control of the presidency, had the regional condemnation of the coup in their jacket pockets and, crucially, still controlled the national radio and television, the only one that could still transmit across the country.

Shortly after midnight, armed men attacked the two private radio stations in Bujumbura that had broadcast the coup announcements. By Thursday morning, the coup plotters still didn’t have the mass support of the army they had been hoping for and, without the private radio stations, they found that they had no voice, either.

Meanwhile, General Niyongabo took to RNTB, the state broadcaster, to announce that the coup had been defeated. Over at Bujumbura International Airport, the head of security at the facility had received a telephone call asking him to throw his weight behind the coup but he had politely declined. Now he announced that the airport was open.

The loyalists

Desperate to regain the propaganda initiative, the soldiers behind the coup launched an attack on the RNTB facility but they were held off with casualties, and one of their tanks destroyed. The loyalists pressed their advantage, resuming transmission to announce that the coup had failed and the president was on his way home.

Desperate, a few soldiers involved in the coup began to surrender to the loyalists.

In Dar es Salaam meanwhile, Nkurunziza was quietly whisked out of the Serena Hotel and, Tanzanian security sources say, flown to Kigoma Airport, a tiny strip of asphalt south of Burundi on Thursday afternoon.

By this time loyalist forces were in control of Bujumbura Airport but it was deemed too risky to fly there. Instead, a decision was taken to move President Nkurunziza to his hometown, Ngozi, in the north of Burundi, and stage resistance among friendly forces if need be.

Sources gave two varying accounts of how he entered the country. A Tanzanian source said a military helicopter airlifted Nkurunziza into the country, while a diplomatic source in Burundi said a heavily armed convoy had been sent ahead of the arrival of the aircraft and had driven the 300 kilometres to Ngozi under the cover of darkness.

By the time a tweet, deleted and then reposted with the spelling corrected, was released from Nkurunziza’s account on Thursday night announcing he was back in Burundi and in charge of the country, the coup was all over, bar the shooting.

In the swinging pendulum of power, a hash tag, #WhereIsNkurunziza had emerged on Twitter on Thursday night but by Friday morning, as the president made a triumphant re-emergence in his hometown in front of cheering crowds, it was the coup plotters who had become the hunted.

It did not take long for them to be found in the small capital. Coup spokesman Venon Ndabaneze was on the telephone with a reporter from Agence France Presse news agency confirming his intention to surrender when loyalists troops turned up and arrested him and deputy coup leader Ndayirukiye.

READ: Burundi coup leaders arrested after General Niyombare admits failure

Maj-Gen Niyombare’s last act, on Friday morning, was also to telephone the news agency to report his capitulation.

“We have decided to surrender,” he told AFP on the telephone, adding that troops loyal to President Nkurunziza were approaching him.

“I hope they won’t kill us,” he added. Then the line went dead.

READ: Burundi coup leader on the run: police

Forty-eight hours after it began, the coup was over. In downtown Bujumbura, the protestors slowly started emerging back onto the streets and re-erecting barricades.

It was a dramatic week in Burundi but the more things had changed, the more they had remained the same.

Additional reporting by Mkinga Mkinga, Katare Mbashiru, Moses Havyarimana, and agencies.