Burundi's president returns to divided capital after failed coup

Pierre Nkurunziza warns that protests must end, but demonstrators vow to stay out on streets

The president of Burundi has returned home to a febrile and divided country after a military coup failed to dislodge him but left his political critics vowing to keep up protests against his plan to run for a third term.

Crowds of thousands gathered on Friday in Kamenga, a predominantly loyalist neighbourhood in the capital Bujumbura, to greet Pierre Nkurunziza as he returned from his home village after crossing the border back into Burundi on Thursday night.

In his first address to the nation since the coup attempt, Nkurunziza warned that the protests against him must now end, and linked the demonstrators with the coup plotters.

“It is obvious that the current upheavals are related to the group that wanted to overthrow government institutions,” he added, demanding “the uprising stops immediately”. Those with “grievances” against the government should present their issues using “dialogue and talks and not through violence”.

His return came as three leaders of the coup plot were arrested and conflicting reports emerged concerning the former intelligence chief who on Wednesday had declared that the president had been removed. The president’s office denied Gen Godefroid Niyombare was among those under arrest, but other reports suggested he had been detained.

Boys walk behind patrolling soldiers in Bujumbura on Friday
Boys walk behind patrolling soldiers in Bujumbura on Friday. Photograph: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

The United Nations called for due process and human rights to be observed. “There is an imperative need to restore calm and avoid violence in the wake of the attempted coup,” a spokesman said. “There should be inclusive dialogue. Reprisals and revenge must be avoided.”

The violence of recent weeks has left the small east African nation facing its biggest crisis since the end of a 12-year ethnically charged civil war a decade ago. Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader from the Hutu majority who has been in power since 2005, sparked angry demonstrations when it became clear last month he intended to run for a third term in office.

On Friday loyalists lined the roads of National Route One waiting for the motorcade believed to be carrying the president, while a crowd of women danced and sang: “The people of Burundi have decided: Pierre Nkurunziza will continue to be president!”

But in the neighbourhoods consumed by protests against his decision to run for a third term, which the demonstrators consider illegal, the mood was significantly more sombre.

“If it is necessary we will continue. I’m not afraid to continue. We’ll start slowly with the demonstrations but we’ll start again from tomorrow,” said Pontien Nkeshimana, a protester in the Musaga neighbourhood of Bujumbura.

Anti Nkurunziza protesters in front of a barricade in Bujumbura
Anti-Nkurunziza protesters in front of a barricade in Bujumbura. Photograph: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

Witnesses report police shooting at, and in at least one case killing, any protesters attempting to erect the roadblocks ubiquitous throughout the demonstrations.

“We’re being treated like criminals now and all we were trying to do is make sure the Arusha Accord was respected,” said Mugisha Arman, another protester in Musaga, referring to the agreement that ended Burundi’s civil war . “We just want the president to respect the constitution and give up his third term.”

“We have failed; we have to prepare a new start,” said Spageon Ngabo, the spokesperson for Focode, one of the student groups leading the protests. “There are many who are thinking about how we can recover and move forward again, others are still consuming the shock.”

The president, however, is not without support. “We’re very happy our president is back in the country. We strongly condemn the attempted overthrowing,” said Valentin, a young journalist who did not want to give his second name for fear it would affect his work. “If the opposition wants to rule the country then let them run and get the votes, the time of military coups in Burundi is over.”

Anti government protesters on the streets of Bujumbura, Burundi.
Anti-government protesters on the streets of Bujumbura. Photograph: Goran Tomasevic/Reuters

A pick-up truck piled with young men wearing T-shirts bearing the ruling CNDD-FDD party logo rode around the city blasting out music and shouting: “People who have fled the country! Come back! Come back!” More than 105,000 people have fled Burundi to neighbouring nations since the protests started.

“Even before the coup started people sent their families to Nairobi or other regional capitals. People were already scared before the coup about repression and violence. They will be even more scared now,” said Thierry Vircoulon, project director for Central Africa at the International Crisis Group.

Nkurunziza maintains that presidential elections will still go ahead on 26 June, as scheduled. Opposition spokespeople have called for protests to continue.

“This call will be the final test for the opposition. If people go back to the streets in Bujumbura, they will demonstrate their determination to fight against the third mandate. This is another moment of truth for Burundi,” said Vircoulon.

Giving the first death toll for the fight to control the state broadcaster on Thursday, army chief of staff Gen Prime Niyongabo told state radio that 12 pro-coup soldiers had been killed. Thirty-five other “mutineers” were wounded and 40 more surrendered, he said. Four loyal troops were wounded.

“The failure of the protestors to take RTNB [the state radio and television station] was a symbol of their overall failure,” said the director of television, Nestor Bankumukunzi.

The detritus of Thursday’s chaos littered the streets of downtown Bujumbura: bullet casings, blood-soaked dirt, and buildings marked by RPGs fired during the day-long battle for control of the capital.

Radio Publique Africaine (RPA), a private radio station shut down by the government during the protests, was destroyed; the exterior riddled with bullet holes and the inside charred black, full of melted equipment from being set alight.

Radio Bonesha, another public station that had been partially shut down by the government, was also inoperable. Its equipment had been shot through with bullets and an office door lay flat after it was kicked down the previous day.

Abigail Higgins in Bujumbura and agencies

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Burundi's President Nkurunziza shakes up cabinet after coup attempt
Protesters demonstrating against president’s bid for third term also warned they will be treated as accomplices to the attempted overthrow

David Smith Africa correspondent

18, May, 2015 @5:01 PM

Article image
Burundi coup figure admits defeat after day of fighting in capital
Capital exploded into violence after former intelligence chief rallied elements of the military in attempt to oust absent Pierre Nkurunziza

Abigail Higgins in Bujumbura and David Smith, Africa correspondent

15, May, 2015 @11:12 AM

Article image
Burundi's president Pierre Nkurunziza wins third term in disputed election
Leading opponent Agathon Rwasa refuses to recognise result in vote condemned by US, UK and human rights groups after weeks of violence

Jessica Hatcher in Bujumbura

24, Jul, 2015 @4:24 PM

Letters: Burundi's victims
Letters: Today marks the sixth anniversary of Burundi's Titanic Express bus massacre, in which Charlotte Wilson, a British aid worker, was killed, together with her Burundian fiancé, Richard Ndereyimana, and 19 others.

28, Dec, 2006 @12:03 AM

Article image
One man's bid to save Burundi's crocodiles from the cooking pot
In Burundi’s capital, Albert Ngendera has turned his home into a refuge to save the country’s declining crocodiles from being snapped up for dinner. But with 45 babies due in January, the crocs will soon outgrow their home

Hannah McNeish in Bujumbura

31, Dec, 2014 @4:07 PM

Article image
Burundi's solar plans forge ahead despite political unrest
As violence erupts in the capital, plans for the country’s first major solar plant bring hope to thousands whose lives will be transformed by electricity

David Smith, Mubuga, Burundi

06, Oct, 2015 @8:56 AM

Article image
Burundi protesters celebrate as general launches coup attempt
Outcome uncertain as former ally ‘dismisses’ president and says he is working to form transitional government

Abigail Higgins in Bujumbura, Sam Jones in London and agencies

13, May, 2015 @4:52 PM

Article image
Gabon detains soldiers after failed coup
Group of soldiers had called on people to ‘rise up’ while ailing president is out of country

Ruth Maclean in Dakar, and agencies

07, Jan, 2019 @2:18 PM

Article image
Burundi elections: Pierre Nkurunziza set to win disputed third term as president
As polling booths open in African nation, former rebel leader’s opponents call vote ‘theatre’ and say third term violates constitution and Arusha Accords

Jessica Hatcher in Bujumbura

21, Jul, 2015 @7:23 AM

Troops hold Mauritanian president after coup

Seizing of elected leader ends north-west African country's brief experiment in democracy

Ian Black

06, Aug, 2008 @11:01 PM