Failed coup gives Burundi chance out of crisis

The attempted coup d'etat in Burundi has failed. It didn’t really have much chance of succeeding. And so, after an absence of a few hours, President Nkurunziza is back in power and things are as they were before. Or are they?

The attempted coup d’état in Burundi has failed. It didn’t really have much chance of succeeding. And so, after an absence of a few hours, President Nkurunziza is back in power and things are as they were before. Or are they?

Predictably his first public words were to thank God for delivering him from his enemies. He could have thanked a few others, though. For instance, he could have had a few warm words for the incompetence of the coup plotters.

Of course, he didn’t. The reflection in the mirror had a familiar look.

He could have been very effusive in paying gratitude to the people who had helped him return to Burundi through unusual routes for a president. He has not done so, at least not publicly.

Next, huge thanks should have gone to the international community that has in recent times turned hostile to coups d’état and such like changes of government – whenever they are convenient, of course.

Maybe that will come. Surely the story of the nine lepers of the bible is a familiar tale.

Gratitude or none, the failed coup attempt and current events in Burundi have important lessons for the future of the country.

First, they have exposed the deep divisions within Burundian society, both civil and military. No one can ignore that they exist. Nor can they simply be papered over and life continues normally.

This is the beast in the house that has to be wrestled down and killed. It is not enough to give it tranquillisers; soon they wear off. Or to appease it with sweeteners; with time they lose their appeal.

Second, they have shown how fragile the arrangements on which the political system is built are. To make it work, they should be strengthened, loopholes removed and it become the common property of all Burundians – not just of party leaders and war-lords.

Third, the goings on in Burundi have brought home to Burundians what their neighbours already know – that the international community doesn’t really care and should not be expected to help sort out their problems.

This comes to prove the simple fact that you have to start putting out the fire in your house before others can come to your aid.

Still, the failed coup offers a unique opportunity for Mr Nkurunziza and Burundians to put things right and save their country from sliding back into fratricidal conflict.

As a starting point, he has the chance to rise above political differences and emotions of the moment and act like a statesman. This way, he can resist the temptation to take revenge on the coup plotters and protesters against his third term bid.

He should be able to restrain his chest-thumping and arms-wielding supporters among civilians and the military from acts of lawlessness and destruction.

The current circumstances provide an opportunity to pause and reflect on where the country is headed. Perhaps they should not rush into an election when the country is so badly divided. Maybe this is the right moment for the president to reach across to opponents and rivals, and together seek a way out.

He would not be alone in this. The region would support him. Even the fickle international community would give its backing to a reasonable compromise.

All this is really not too much to ask. But it remains to be seen whether this opportunity will be seized or spurned and the chance for redemption slip away. There are indications that indeed the moment may be passing.

For example, there are reports of torture on coup plotters and attacks on those perceived to have been sympathetic to the coup. Media houses and other property have been destroyed. Yet what is called for here is fairness, magnanimity and reconciliation, not retaliation, retribution and hardening of positions.

In various pronouncements, President Nkurunziza has tried to shift blame for what is happening in Burundi to outsiders. In an interview with the BBC just before the attempted coup, he said outsiders whom he did not name were fuelling the protests against his decision to run for another term.

When he resurfaced after the failed coup, he warned that the fight would be taken and fought outside Burundi’s borders, where it had originated. He did not name the country. He has also talked of terrorist threats by Al Shabab.

Such talk diverts attention from the real problems and therefore their possible solution. It is also an all too common excuse for a clampdown on political opponents. Small wonder the flight of refugees to neighbouring countries has increased since the coup failed. Those unable to leave continue to live in fear.

The president has the duty to allay those fears, and restore security and political stability. That is what leadership is about.

The world, too, has a responsibility to Burundi. It cannot give up on the country which has been on the mend in the last few years.