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

Burundi’s president, Pierre Nkurunziza, has begun a purge of his cabinet following last week’s thwarted coup attempt, while protesters have been warned that they will be treated as accomplices of the rebel generals who staged it.

The crackdown came as thousands of refugees continued to flee the east African country in fear of a violent backlash, with many enduring desperate conditions, including an outbreak of cholera.

Apparently strengthened by recent events, Nkurunziza’s office announced on Monday that the defence minister, Pontian Gaciyubwenge, had been sacked and replaced by Emmanuel Ntahonvukiye, a lawyer who becomes the first civilian defence chief in 50 years. The foreign minister, Laurent Kavakure, has been replaced by Alain Aimé Nyamitwe, a former ambassador to the African Union; while the trade minister, Virginia Ciza, was replaced by Irina Inantore.

“The president has powers under the constitution, including being able to change the government,” a presidential spokesman, Gervais Abayeho, said. “He believes that the time has come and it is up to his discretion.”

The cull came days after a group of senior generals launched a bid to oust Nkurunziza while he was on a visit to neighbouring Tanzania, following almost three weeks of protests over his bid to run for a third term in office. The putsch attempt led to fighting in the capital, Bujumbura, and ended in failure with its ringleaders arrested.

Nkurunziza returned to the country and has since been accused of a campaign of repression and gagging independent media. The foreign ministry said on its website, on Monday, that protesters against him would be treated as accomplices of the generals who staged the power grab. Bujumbura’s mayor, Juma Saidi, speaking on state television, warned that “demonstrators will be considered as part of the coup, and security forces have been ordered to treat them as such”.

Despite this, protesters, who argue that Nkurunziza’s bid for re-election violates the constitution, resumed small demonstrations on Monday, gathering in several areas to sing songs and blow whistles. When the army fired shots into the air, Agence France-Presse (AFP) reported, protesters reacting by lying down on the ground, raising their hands in the air and singing the national anthem.

Pacifique Nininahazwe, a protest leader, told AFP: “It was courageous to protest today after all the threats that demonstrators have received from the authorities … and the presence of many heavily armed soldiers, who have not stopped firing live rounds – but fortunately into the air and not at demonstrators.”

More than 110,000 people have fled Burundi since the crisis began, according to the UN’s refugee agency UNHCR, with many fearful of youth militias known as Imbonerakure and loyal to Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader from the Hutu majority. Memories are still raw over an ethnically charged civil war that left 300,000 people dead a decade ago.

Violence in Burundi forces thousands to flee to Tanzania.

Most of the refugees have gone south to Tanzania but 27,000 have sought safety to the north, in Rwanda – where 800,000 Tutsis were killed in the 1994 genocide – and 9,000 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

In Kagunga, a tiny fishing village on the shores of Lake Tanganyika just 2km inside Tanzania, an estimated 50,000 refugees are sleeping rough in dire conditions, Reuters reported. They are waiting for the 102-year-old MV Liemba – a ferry first used by the German imperial navy during the first world war – to carry them south to safety.

Seven people have died since the evacuees started arriving, the UNHCR said, and 300 are suffering acute diarrhoea. On Monday, Tanzanian authorities confirmed an outbreak of cholera.

In Rwanda’s refugee centres, some Tutsis said they had wanted to avoid an expected backlash by Nkurunziza’s security forces. Hakizimana Leonidas, a 46-year-old Tutsi who arrived in the Gashora refugee camp last weekend, told Reuters: “I heard that the coup had failed so I was afraid that the Imbonerakure could retaliate. They tried a coup and it failed. I think its going to be worse for us who don’t want to see Nkurunziza run again.”


David Smith Africa correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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