Burundi on the brink after army deposed Nkurunziza

The situation has developed dramatically in Burundi. Weeks of struggle by the masses against President Nkurunziza’s plan to stand for yet another term in office have led to deep splits in the state apparatus. The entire regime has been shaken to its core. But in the absence of a party capable to lead the masses, the vacuum has been filled by sections of the army.

Pressure on the army has been immense. The mass revolt has led to a split within the regime with a section resolving to ditch Nkurunziza in order to save their power. All of this came to a head in a dramatic way with the announcement on May 13 by the army that Nkurunziza had been overthrown.

The announcement on Wednesday by a senior Burundian general in a live radio broadcast that Pierre Nkurunziza had been ‘’dismissed’’ as president was just one event in a tumultuous day in Bujumbura. General Godefroid Niyombare, a powerful former intelligence chief who was fired in February made the announcement just hours after Nkurunziza left the country to attend an emergency regional summit in Tanzania to discuss the Burundi crisis.

"Regarding President Nkurunziza's arrogance and defiance of the international community which advised him to respect the constitution and the Arusha peace agreement, the committee for the establishment of the national concord declare: President Nkurunziza is dismissed, his government is dismissed too. Given the necessity of preserving the country's integrity, President Pierre Nkurunziza is dismissed from his functions,’’ Niyombare announced at a military barracks in Bujumbura. The general’s announcement was also broadcasted on local radio stations around the clock.

The general also announced that a ‘’national salvation committee’’ had been set up to run the country. He also ordered the closing of the Bujumbura airport and the country’s land borders. Flights in and out of the country were cancelled.   

Soon after the announcement the streets of Bujumbura were flooded with jubilant masses of people. Thousands occupied the central Place de L'Independance amid scenes of wild celebrations. Crowds of people ran through the square cheering, singing and dancing. Others climbed on top of the roofs of vehicles, waving the country’s flag and chanting. Thousands of protesters marched alongside soldiers to the center of Bujumbura.  

The Guardian quoted a protester in Nyakabiga, a neighbourhood at the epicentre of the protests saying, ‘’We are so happy, we are so happy, this is a huge victory!’ We thank our soldiers for protecting us, we are asking for freedom for Burundians.’’

After the general’s statement police withdrew from the streets of Bujumbura, the capital, as thousands of people celebrated. People thronged Bujumbura's streets and applauded soldiers who rode by in tanks and trucks. Some of the troops smiled and one raised his rifle to acknowledge the cheering crowd.

Meanwhile in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, Nkurunziza dismissed news of the military takeover as ‘’a joke’’ and suddenly abandoned the meeting to return to Burundi. But rather comically, he was grounded in Dar es Salaam because the Burundian army had taken control of the Bujumbura airport, sent the staff home, cut the electricity and issued an arrest order for him if he dared to show up. It was reported he was on his way to Uganda. But it seems the Ugandans were not too keen to handle such a hot potato and refused him entry.   

However, the situation in the country is still very fluid and it is not certain that the entire army is behind the ousting of Nkurunziza. This was apparent on Wednesday when General Godefroid Niyombare had to make his announcement from a private radio station because the public broadcaster was still occupied by loyalist forces. Also, when the masses entered the centre of Bujumbura, they were prevented from coming close to the presidential palace by loyalist troops.

Later in the day there were numerous reports of negotiations between senior army officers to thrash out a deal. But on Wednesday night clashes around the state broadcaster revealed that the deal had fallen through. On Thursday morning there was a standoff in the city centre between troops on the different sides of the divide. The coming days will reveal if the army can hold united or whether the country is heading for another civil war.

Relentless protests

Over the last few weeks scores of youth have been locked in deadly clashes with the police. In Bujumbura crowds of people have flooded the streets on a daily basis calling for change. Entire neighbourhoods rose up against the regime. The response of the government was to crack down on the protests using the police. On May 2 the country’s interior security minister, the rabid reactionary General Gabriel Nizigama vowed to clamp down on what he called ‘’criminals, terrorists and enemies of the state’’ after agent provocateurs detonated a grenade which killed two police officers and wounded 17 other people. The intentions of the interior minister were clearly to drown the protests in blood.

With the mortal threat of bloody reaction the demonstrations which resumed in Bujumbura on May 6 were much better organised than the ones the week before. Action committees started to spring up almost spontaneously. In some neighbourhoods food was prepared in advance to keep the protests going. In others, where the army was not deployed in heavy numbers embryos of self-defence committees were formed to fight against the ruling party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure.

On May 10, hundreds of women came out onto the streets of Bujumbura on Mothers’ day to protest against the regime. This was in complete defiance of a government ban on mass gatherings and marches. Police officers who were deployed to stop the protests were told to get out of the way and those who were too slow to act were simply pushed to the side in extraordinary scenes of heroism and bravery. According to RFI one protester told the police: ‘’We are mothers. It is our children who are killed. It is our children who are in prison. We are here to respect human rights. We are here against the third term.’’  

Another one added: ‘’We are tired. We want peace. We want the respect of our nation and our legal text. Our constitution is sacred. So are the Arusha accords. They brought us peace after ten years of war in which we lost our sons and daughters. We don’t want that anymore.’’

These are the authentic voices of revolutionary women. On many occasions in the history of revolutionary movements it has been women who came out strongest and shamed the men into action, because it is more often than not these women who have to bear the brunt of family life and class oppression. This situation was no exception and had the effect of igniting the latest upsurge against Nkurunziza,     

On May 12 there were heavy clashes in the Butarere district of Bujumbura when police fired live ammunition and tear gas against the protesting youth. But instead of cowering, the crowd turned the tables on the police. In the chaos which followed, protesters grabbed a policewoman who had been firing at the crowd at point blank range and beat her up. She was later released after sustaining injuries. This remarkable little detail completely expose the claims about protesters being ‘’terrorists’’ and ‘’criminals.’’

Splits in the regime

Two weeks of daily protests have given rise to serious spits in the regime. The first split was between the army and the police. The plans of the police to carry out a massacre and drown the protests in blood have been thwarted on many occasions by soldiers. While the police were ready to carry out their counterrevolutionary orders, sections of the army have regularly intervened to keep the police away from demonstrators and in some cases have even disarmed police officers. One example was on April 30, when a soldier was shot by an intelligence officer near a barricade which was set up by the protesters. The officer was arrested by soldiers on the spot.  

Further divisions became apparent when the second most senior judge of the Constitutional Court, which was about to rule over the legality of a third term for Pierre Nkurunziza, fled the country on May 4. The dramatic departure of Judge Sylvere Nimpagaritse revealed bitter infighting within the state bureaucracy. Nimpagaritse said most of the court’s seven judges believed it would be unconstitutional for Nkurunziza to stand again, but they were facing “enormous pressure and even death threats’’ to force them to change their minds. “Two who had held that a third mandate would violate the Arusha accords and the constitution were scared” and changed their mind, he said. “They told me that if we didn’t change our minds we would humiliate the president and that we were taking a big risk, that we were risking our lives and we would have to join the other side,’’ he said.

He added that he refused to rubber stamp the decision: ‘’In my soul and conscience I decided not to put my signature to a ruling, a decision which is clearly not lawful that would be imposed from the outside, and which has nothing legal about it”.

Military takeover

The announcement by the military comes as no surprise. For the past three weeks, the Burundian masses have been taking to the streets to protest for their rights. Only the lack of a central organisation prevented them from overthrowing the government directly.

On the other hand, the weakness of the regime was clear for all to see. Despite having the police at his disposal, Nkurunziza was prevented from using it to drown the protests in blood by an extremely fractured state machinery.

At every turn he was thwarted by sections of the army which were not loyal to him. This made the soldiers very popular with the masses on the streets. All of this has meant that neither the protests nor the regime could deliver the the fatal blow needed to overcome the impasse. Out of this situation the military became the supreme arbiter. But without the actions of the revolutionary masses the military would not have acted, or would have acted in a reactionary way. This point has to be made clearly, that the masses of ordinary men, women and youth are the motor force behind the events in Burundi.      

Diplomatic manoeuvres

Over the last week there has been a flurry of diplomatic activity involving regional powers and the US government. After a slow start, the imperialist forces and their puppet regimes in the region have been working around the clock to catch up with the rapidly moving situation. An extraordinary summit of heads of state and government of the East African Community (EAC) was hastily arranged to discuss the events in Burundi. The summit was attended by heads of state and government of Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, Rwanda, Burundi and South Africa's Deputy President Ramaphosa.

Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, warned last week that the crisis in Burundi could destabilise the Great Lakes region which US imperialism has worked hard to stabilize after having pushed out the declining influence of France and Belgium. The involvement of Assistant Secretary for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the top US official for Africa, in the Dar es Salaam summit underscores the high degree of US concern over the potentially explosive situation in Burundi.

However, a series of revolutionary mass movements across the continent of Africa has revealed the weakness of the imperialist forces. In the past, the imperialists would not have hesitated to send in troops to stabilise the situation. During the civil war in Congo Brazzaville for example, sending over a British warship with no more than a hundred sailors was enough to send thousands of rebels fleeing. But the global crisis of capitalism means that the imperialist forces are overstretched and cannot directly intervene in every conflict. Besides if they do intervene, they only end up exacerbating the situation further, like in the case of Syria and Iraq.   

Effect on the region

As we warned previously, the situation in Burundi risks escalating into a regional crisis. This point was confirmed at the Dar es Salaam summit when the Rwandan foreign minister, Louise Mushikiwabo warned very firmly that Rwandan FDLR rebels in the DR Congo (DRC) were slipping across the border into Burundi. ‘’We have information that some FDLR elements have crossed into Burundi from the Congo and might even get involved directly in the unrest in the country”, Mushikiwabo said.

Since the crisis in Burundi started, over 50,000 people have fled into neighbouring countries, most of them to Rwanda. The emergency could give Rwandan president Kagame a pretext to launch military incursions into Burundi. However, Kagame will not act out of ‘’humanitarian’’  concern or out of a love for democracy or human rights.

The Western media often portray Kagame as a ‘’democratic’’ leader who has led his country out of the nightmare of the 1994 Genocide. In reality he is an unapologetic autocratic leader and a rabid reactionary. His RPF rebel force (and now the government) have committed massacres of Hutus both in Rwanda, when it took power, and later in the Congo. According to the UN the Rwandan army has also plundered $100 million worth of gold, diamonds, tin, coltan and other minerals from the eastern DRC.

The real reason why Kagame may be keen to intervene in Burundi is to preserve his own rule in Rwanda. Over the last few months students successfully stopped Joseph Kabila from illegally extending his Presidential term in the DR Congo and now the situation in Burundi is going in the same direction. What is true for Kagame in Rwanda is also true for other leaders like Yoweri Museveni, Uganda’s autocratic president for the last 27 years, who has grown increasingly intolerant of even the mildest criticism.        

The road to revolution

The extraordinary events in Burundi are only the latest in a series of mass revolutionary movements which have broken out on the continent over the last period. The Tunisian revolution in the north of the continent ignited the Arab revolutions. In the west of the continent, one country after another was affected by mass revolt. The revolution in Burkina Faso sent shockwaves throughout the continent. Now the ghost of revolution is crossing central and east Africa.

All of this show that large sections of the continent are on the road to revolution. The high economic growth rates across much of Sub Saharan Africa has given rise to the ‘’Africa rising’’ narrative. By this is meant that mere accelerated growth rates will give rise to greater prosperity. But on a capitalist basis higher growth rates mean greater exploitation for the masses and greater prosperity for the rich. Therefore, the brutal economic exploitation of the masses and the fight for real democracy is at the heart of the protests raging across many countries on the continent. For the masses the fight for democracy is inseparable from the fight for a better life. But it is clear that capitalism can guarantee neither. In fact the system and the bosses are directly responsible for the misery of millions. In the last analysis only a root and branch removal of capitalism and its replacement with genuine socialism is the answer for the toiling masses.

What is sorely missing in Burundi, as was the case in Burkina Faso, is a revolutionary leadership based on the working masses and the youth, capable of giving these movements an independent class basis and lead them to the overthrow of capitalism. In the absence of that, and in the same way as we saw in Tunisia and Egypt, the revolutionary movement of the masses will be hijacked by one section of the state apparatus or one set or another of bourgeois politicians.