By William Akoto
Major General Godefroid Niyombareh, a high-ranking general in the Burundian army led a failed coup attempt against president Pierre Nkurunziza this past week. Things came to a head after protests over the constitutional court’s decision to allow President Nkurunziza to seek a third term in office. The constitution allows only two terms but the president argued that his first term did not count because he was not elected but appointed by parliament. Thus, the court rule technically establishes his current term as his first, but Burundians weren’t buying it. Memories of the civil war, which killed 300,000 people and displaced millions, are still fresh in the minds of many, so when recent protests became violent, over 50,000 fled to neighboring countries. And who can blame them? Better to get out while you still can. President Nkurunziza scrambled to calm nerves, even promising that elections will be held in a free and fair atmosphere with no intimidation. Didn’t work.
It wasn’t long before some sections of society began looking to the army to intervene. Usually, it is at this point that things start getting dicey. As the aftermath of the Arab Spring in Egypt and Libya taught us, the president’s rule may be bad, but life under the army could be far worse. Once the army takes over, getting them to hand over power becomes an issue, usually requiring foreign intervention and months of negotiations. Coups also often come with curfews, roadblocks and general disruptions to businesses which could dampen GDP growth, plunging the country into a cycle of economic and business crises that are totally avoidable. Fragile developing countries like Burundi can ill-afford such disruptions and President Nkurunziza knows this. So when the leaders of the East African community called a meeting in Tanzania to address the developing crisis, Nkurunziza was all too willing to attend. And that is where he erred because the coup plans kicked into gear almost immediately after his plane took off.
Nkurunziza is not the first president to have a coup attempt made against him while he was out of the country. In December 2014, Yahaya Jammeh, Gambia’s long time strong man saw a similar attempt made against him while he was away in France. Like the Burundi attempt, that failed when forces loyal to the president rallied and fended off the poorly planned coup attempt. Other leaders were not so lucky. Deposed presidents are often thrown in jail or summarily executed. The lucky ones barely escape with their lives and have years in exile to look forward to. It is therefore not only in the interest of the incumbent but also that of the entire country for such coups to be effectively prevented. However, academics and other analysts who have examined the problem have yet to come up with a fail-safe way to insure a regime against coups. As events in Burundi have demonstrated, there are two general guidelines that incumbents should religiously stick to.
Firstly, the president should generally avoid significant travel outside the country when his hold on power is tenuous. This is especially the case when there are protestors on the streets. The protests could be about anything – the economy, high inflation, unemployment or some other grievance. It doesn’t matter. What matters is the signaling effect that these protests have. They show that at least a section of the public is unhappy with the status quo and wish to see it change. That is all that potential coup makers need to embolden them to put their plans into action. Leaders should instead attempt to address such issues before they arise.
Coup makers need to displace the president either by capturing him or incapacitating him in some way. To do this, they need to get past the presidential guard. This is where the president travelling outside the country does them a huge favor because it takes both the president and a large chunk of the presidential guard out of the equation. Once this happens, taking over the presidency becomes significantly easier. Many would rather live than risk death fighting the coup makers, especially when it appears the coup is on the verge of success.
Which brings us to the second point. While the coup is underway, propaganda is king. He who controls the media controls the narrative and that is critical because once the coup attempt is launched, fear spreads and rumors abound. It’s difficult to ascertain which forces are loyal to whom, who is winning or who is in charge. This is where the media is key – and not just any media but state radio and TV. State radio and TV are often seen as the mouthpiece of the government, so control of that mouthpiece is an important symbolic indication of who is in charge. Coup makers can use propaganda on state media to demoralize loyalist forces, exaggerate the extent of their control or coerce support from the general public. The objective is to strike fear into the hearts of loyalist forces and possibly convince them that resistance is futile. So the president should ensure that security is beefed up around key symbolic state institutions such as the presidential palace and state TV and radio when things get tenuous.
Its not much but with any luck, these could help thwart any coup attempts that may be made and ensure that the president can hold on to power and prevent the negative consequences of coups.