Burundi leader makes first appearance since coup bid

Agence France-Presse
Burundi leader makes first appearance since coup bid
Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza pointedly ignores the coup attempt and speaks only about reported threats from Somalia's Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab militants

Dressed in a blue blazer and polo shirt, the president smiled and shook hands with reporters at the presidency in Bujumbura’s city center. He gave only a brief statement, without even mentioning this week’s attempt to overthrow him.

Nkurunziza has been facing weeks of deadly street protests over his controversial bid to stand for a third term in office. On Wednesday, May 13, a group of top generals tried to overthrow him while he was on a visit to neighboring Tanzania.

But on Friday, May 15, the coup leaders admitted defeat, having failed to capture the state broadcaster after fierce fighting with loyalist troops. Seventeen alleged plotters appeared in court on Saturday, May 16, while the alleged ringleader is still said to be on the run.

Nkurunziza pointedly ignored the coup attempt and spoke only about reported threats from Somalia’s Al-Qaeda-linked Shebab militants, who have warned of mounting attacks against Burundi and other states that contribute troops to the African Union force in Somalia.

“We have taken measures against Al-Shebab. We take this threat seriously,” the president said.

Addressing the domestic crisis, Willy Nyamitwe, a close aide to the president, said Burundi’s election commission “could decide to delay” parliamentary and presidential votes. He gave no indication that Nkurunziza had changed his mind about standing for re-election.

“We will put everything in place for the laws and constitution to be respected and for elections to be held,” he said, insisting any delay would not be used as a pretext for Nkurunziza to prolong his rule.

Parliamentary elections are due to take place on May 26, and presidential polls on June 26. Nyamitwe suggested they could be delayed by “two or 3 days, by a week.” The election commission said a decision on the delay would be announced in the coming days.

Born-again president

Opposition and rights groups insist that Nkurunziza’s bid for a third 5-year term is against the constitution and the terms of the peace deal that brought an end to the country’s civil war in 2006.

The president has also been accused of intimidating opponents and failing to lift the fortunes of one of the poorest countries on the planet.

Nkurunziza, however, argues that his first term did not count as he was elected by parliament, not directly by the people. A former rebel leader from the Hutu majority, Nkurunziza is also a born-again Christian who maintains he has divine backing to lead the small landlocked country.

The group of 17 alleged coup plotters, including a former defense minister and two top police commissioners, appeared before a state prosecutor on Saturday to face accusations of “attempting to overthrow the state.”

“No one is going to be killed,” Nyamitwe told reporters. “Some of them surrendered and others have been caught by security forces. The others who are still on the run are being sought by the police and the army to be brought to justice. All of them are going to be judged.”

Weeks of protests have already left at least 20 people dead, many of them shot by police dispersing the demonstrations. It remains unclear, however, how many were killed during the coup attempt.

Witnesses and security sources nevertheless gave an indication of the ferocity of the fighting, with troops loyal to the president even hunting down wounded rival soldiers in a hospital and engaging in a fierce gun fight.

Pause in protests

Bujumbura was calm on Sunday, although civil society and opposition activists have vowed to resume street protests on Monday, May 18. 

“There is a truce so we can bury our dead,” said Pacifique Nininahazwe, one of the leaders of the campaign to stop the president from standing again. “The protests will start again on Monday morning.”

Officials say chief coup plotter Godefroid Niyombare, a former intelligence chief, was still on the run – although he had said Friday that he planned to hand himself in.

Rights activist Innocent Muhozi also said journalists were being subjected to threats of arrest and even death, and that the head of the prominent independent radio station RPA had been forced to flee the country.

Burundi’s main independent radio stations were attacked and put off the air by loyalist troops during the coup attempt. The president’s aide, however, condemned the attacks.

In a sign of continued uncertainty and tensions, European aid groups also evacuated their foreign staff on Saturday, a diplomat said.

More than 100,000 Burundians have fled the violence to neighboring nations, the United Nations said Friday. – Esdras Ndikumana, Aymeric Vincenot, AFP/Rappler.com


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