Burundi: Major military coup attempt in progress

Update May 15, 2015: The coup has failed.

A military coup attempt is in progress after weeks of demonstrations against the president’s unconstitutional re-election bid for a third term and against his violent security forces or youth paramilitaries. BBC Africa covered the blow-by-blow events of the day on its live feed.

President Pierre Nkurunziza was in Tanzania for a regional leaders meeting when General Godefroid Niyombare — a former intelligence chief fired in February for advising the president against seeking a third term — took to the airwaves to announce he was closing the airport and borders to keep the president from returning and would be taking power. Protesters began leaving the streets, after initial celebrations alongside the supportive troops, on the orders of pro-coup forces who began arriving in tanks and armored vehicles. Police fell back.

President Nkurunziza’s team said its loyal security forces remained in control of key government and broadcast functions as well as the presidential palace. They dubbed the coup attempt a failure:

“It is with regret that we have learned that a group of soldiers rebelled this morning and made a fake declaration about a coup. The Presidency of the Republic wants the public opinion both in Burundi and abroad to know that this coup attempt has been stopped and that the people who read that statement on private local radio are being sought by the defence and security forces so that they are brought to justice. The Presidency of the Republic is asking the people of Burundi as well as foreigners to keep calm. Everything is being done to maintain security across the national territory.”

However, I fear we might be looking at a South Sudan situation in Burundi. The coup attempt may only partially succeed but it will likely not completely fail either (given the large presence of participating tanks and troops already). The military is multi-ethnic and comprises multiple factions from the country’s civil war. Some of them will back the president, some will back the coup, and some will back neither. It will also likely be a more violent split than in Lesotho last summer. And it will certainly not be as clean a break as the Burkina Faso military coup last October, which also involved an unconstitutional re-election bid.

As another complication, Nkurunziza had indeed been elected democratically but was now attempting to violate the constitution and has been widely accused of deploying death squads against his political enemies. Thus the coup is (if successful) removing a democratic leader but one who had become about as undemocratic as possible over the course of his tenure.

Flag of Burundi

Flag of Burundi

Lesotho holds special election to try to resolve coup crisis

Previously from Arsenal For Democracy:
“Possible coup attempt in progress in Lesotho” – 8/30/14
“Lesotho military appears to fracture after coup attempt” – 9/8/14
“South Africa making headway in Lesotho crisis talks” – 10/26/14

As part of South Africa’s mediation plan to resolve the crisis following a failed military coup in Lesotho last August and an earlier suspension of parliament, the people of Lesotho voted this weekend in a special election for a new parliament. Most of the same faction leaders in the crisis are running again, but with their various security forces on the sidelines. Although the election seems to be going smoothly, it’s not clear it can actually bring any additional stability to the country.

Justice Mahapela Lehohla, chairman of Lesotho’s Independent Electoral Commission, said: “The voting has been proceeding peacefully and according to plan.”

There are 23 politicians vying for the top post, with another coalition likely, according to analysts.

A final result may not emerge for days due to the remoteness of some communities voting.

If nobody gets a majority and the same people are returned to power and opposition leadership (or the same unstable coalitions are formed again), I have a hard time seeing how this moves the country forward. The fear and mutual recriminations within the country’s elite are likely to continue, particularly in such a small country where everyone in politics knows everyone else in politics and have long (often bitter) histories with each other.

Michael J. Jordan, who styles himself on Twitter as “the lone Western foreign correspondent” in Lesotho, has reported extensively on the crisis, the mediation, and the new elections. His latest report (which was also published in Foreign Policy magazine) does not paint an encouraging picture either:

With shared roots in the country’s first post-independence party, the factions are distinguished more by personality than politics, with little difference between their ideologies. But as one civil servant who requested anonymity said, “Whichever side doesn’t get to be a part of the next government, I’m afraid they will cause some troubles — I think they’ll fight.”
“Lesotho is in some ways a victim of its narrative — as the ‘first coalition government in southern Africa’ — because it was a very fragile, shaky edifice, driven by personal splits within the parties,” says John Aerni-Flessner, a Lesotho specialist and professor of African history at Michigan State University. “It was never based on ideological unity, but on politics as convenience. To see it disintegrate isn’t as surprising for Lesotho-watchers as it is for those who bought into the narrative.”

Ironically, the seeds of unrest were planted by the success of the 2012 elections. The upending of the old power structure created an opportunity for the new government to pursue corruption cases against members of the ancien régime, who for years had acted with impunity, accused of fixing contracts and taking kickbacks for everything from agriculture and infrastructure tenders to diamond and water projects. Soon after taking office, Thabane (himself a survivor of 50 years in southern Africa’s rough-and-tumble politics), launched his crusade, digging into the purported crimes of his political rivals.

While Thabane’s critics accused him of conducting a vengeful witch hunt — and others accused him of hypocrisy for his own checkered record — his campaign opened the door for the small handful of local anti-corruption lawyers contracted by the state’s Director of Public Prosecutions, to take on a handful of top officials who had abused their power during the 14-year rule of former Prime Minister Mosisili.

By late 2013, prominent business, political, and security elites named in these investigations soon found they were being made targets. As more were forced to hire lawyers to avoid prosecution, the political fight boiled into violence, culminating on Aug. 30 with an attempted coup.

Jordan suggests, as well, that South Africa didn’t really try to solve the underlying causes of the crisis, but rather just tried to end the surface-level breach of constitutionality and lack of law and order. Hence the big push for quick and early elections that will probably just leave Lesotho waiting for the next shoe to drop. There are also serious, credible complaints that the election wasn’t conducted in a fair or clean manner.

Map of Lesotho's location in southern Africa. (CIA World Factbook)

Map of Lesotho’s location in southern Africa. (CIA World Factbook)

South Africa making headway in Lesotho crisis talks

South Africa’s government is continuing efforts to mediate between the competing political factions in the Lesotho crisis, and is now trying to resolve the military instability and leadership dispute by directly talking to the still dangerous and disaffected supporters of the unsuccessful power grab. Here’s the AFP report:

South Africa’s deputy president has held secret talks with a renegade Lesotho military commander, a defence official told AFP on Thursday [October 23], as an offer of partial amnesty is floated in the hope of ending a destabilising post-coup stand-off.

General Kamoli remained at a secret hideout with a small but heavily armed band of supporters after fleeing there following his attempted coup d’état at the end of August.

Any amnesty deal would relate to the crimes of the attempted coup itself, but might also include various incidentals:

Lesotho police are investigating him for two crimes linked to the 30 August assault: high treason and murder.
Mohasoa said authorities would be willing to provide the suspected coup leader his full retirement package “though we aren’t obliged to for a dismissed official.”

But more sensitive is the amnesty – perhaps for high treason, but not for murder.

“We can discuss possible amnesty for politically motivated reasons,” he said. “But not for what’s considered purely criminal actions.”

Whether Kamoli will accept the offer – which may include prosecution and perhaps jail-time – “That’s the million-dollar question,” said Mohasoa.

The other big thing, besides amnesty and clearing up where the military’s rank and file has placed its loyalties, will be trying to persuade the country’s police force to go along with it. They supported the prime minister and his ruling party against the failed coup and are understandably angry about the consequences of that, which continued to play out a month afterward:

Kamoli aside, Ramaphosa will also have to try to re-build trust between the country’s two most important security services – the Lesotho Defence Force and Lesotho Mounted Police Service.

In just the latest in a series of clashes on 30 September, a night-time shoot-out between soldiers and police on the outskirts of the capital Maseru left two more officers shot and wounded.

A top Lesotho police official told AFP he saw no major obstacle to rebuilding ties with the military if the coup leader and his allies, who have stymied criminal probes into transgressions by troops, are removed.

The South African mediation has also been making progress on the political front to resolve the critical, underlying factors that spurred the coup attempt:

Ramaphosa, mediating on behalf of the Southern African Development Community, has already reached a deal that allowed the re-opening of parliament – which had been shuttered for four months. As part of the agreement elections have been moved up two years to February 2015.

The ongoing closure of parliament was the main complaint held up by General Kamoli as justification for his purported goal of “disarming” the police and “escorting” the prime minister to the King of Lesotho to force parliament to be called back into session. The real reason, of course, was the prime minister’s decision to fire him as head of the armed forces the night before.

Update for Clarity, 10/28/14: According to the AFP’s Michael J. Jordan, who wrote the story I quoted above, the partial deal described above was signed late last week with the various co-conspirators and targets all in a room together (which must have been quite uncomfortable!). Kamoli will leave the country for a while and leave the military, while his police counterpart will also step down. But the unresolved details outlined in the post above remain a problem. Jordan believes the crisis is not finished yet.

Map of Lesotho's location in southern Africa. (CIA World Factbook)

Map of Lesotho’s location in southern Africa. (CIA World Factbook)

Can Guinea-Bissau’s new civilian president dump the military leadership?

One of the major challenges in trying to reform a country’s military to keep them from interfering with governance is whether the meddlers can be removed without them meddling again. Guinea-Bissau’s Army chief, General Antonio Indjai, who was indicted last year in U.S. court for a scheme to send weapons and drugs to Colombian rebels, has been relieved of command by President José Mário Vaz of Guinea-Bissau this week.

The latter only became president in June of this year in free elections after defeating the military’s candidate. He was a finance minister in an earlier government before it was overthrown. Guess who overthrew that government? Why, none other than General Indjai.

In fact, Indjai staged the military coup in 2012 — which blocked presidential elections from being completed — in response to an earlier effort to reform the military under the supervision of Angolan advisers and troops. (Angola is a fellow ex-Portuguese colony that became independent about the same time.) In 2010, Indjai staged a mutiny to become army chief in the first place. Will he go peacefully this time? The better bet is probably no, but perhaps Vaz has an ace up his sleeve and is confident he can make this go off without a hitch.

Guinea-Bissau is one of the least stable countries in the world, with no elected leader having ever left office peacefully, voluntarily, and/or alive in the four decades since independence. In the last fifteen years, the capital power struggles have been particularly intense and bloody — including three successful coups, two high-profile assassinations, and one civil war. Drug traffickers suggested in 2009 that Guinea-Bissau might actually qualify as more dangerous and unstable than Somalia.

To replace General Indjai, President Vaz appointed a close ally and veteran soldier from the country’s war for independence, which ended in 1974 with the overthrow of the Portuguese home government.

The appointment of General Biague Na Ntan, 61, an ethnic Balanta like Indjai, could smooth over any resentment from the ethnic group that makes up about 60 percent of the army and security forces and 25 percent of the population.

He had been commanding the presidential guard prior to his promotion to head of the army.

Far across the continent of Africa, the leader of Lesotho also recently tried to fire the head of his country’s armed forces, only to find himself fleeing a coup attempt, which has now divided the military’s loyalties. That crisis, which has still not been resolved, has to be weighing heavily on the mind of President Vaz in Guinea-Bissau as he tries to remove his own army chief and past coup leader.

As an additional stressor, Guinea-Bissau remains on high alert right now for any signs that the Ebola outbreak might have arrived from neighboring Senegal or Guinea-Conakry, the outbreak epicenter.

Map of Guinea-Bissau and surrounding countries. (CIA World Factbook)

Map of Guinea-Bissau and surrounding countries. (CIA World Factbook)

Lesotho military appears to fracture after coup attempt

Map of Lesotho's location in southern Africa. (CIA World Factbook)

Map of Lesotho’s location in southern Africa.

In the aftermath of the August 30th attempted coup d’état by a disgruntled general (see our background report), Lesotho is now bracing for a conflict among units of the small, southern African country’s armed forces.

Eyewitness News of South Africa reports that Lesotho’s General Kamoli — fired from the head of the military just before he attempted to seize power — has taken off with stolen weapons and supporters:

Former Lesotho military commander Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli has reportedly seized army weapons in preparation for a possible stand-off.

He is accused of destabilising the mountainous country last week after he apparently plotted a coup and has refused to step down as the commander of the Lesotho Defence Force.

Reports from Lesotho are that Kamoli has seized an unknown number of weapons from state armouries in order to prepare for offensive and defensive operations.

Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao says Kamoli has refused to vacate military offices after he was sacked by Prime Minister Tom Thabane.

Eyewitness News also reported that 150 government officials are still in hiding in case the pro-coup forces regain the upper hand. Prime Minister Thabane, however, did return from his temporary refuge South Africa with South African police protection. Negotiations, brokered by South African leaders, continued in an effort to resolve the political crisis peacefully. Thabane had angered members of the military and political opponents for suspending parliament earlier this year and refusing to re-convene it.

An AFP report suggested that the political talks are going poorly. Thabane is still uninterested in bringing parliament back into session, and those military commanders who have remained loyal to his authority are now saying they will be imminently launching operations against Kamoli, the rogue general who has fled into the mountains. They are only waiting now to see if outside armed forces will be assisting.

As part of last week’s agreement Zuma has deployed South African police to protect Thabane and some of his key allies, but Lesotho’s leaders are calling for a more robust force to hunt renegade general Kamoli.

Lesotho’s army commander Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao told AFP on Sunday that military action was now the only option against Kamoli.

“Negotiations have failed as far as we are concerned. At this point in time I think we are left with no option but military operations.”

The army chief was frank about the difficulties he would face in taking on Kamoli, who has taken to the mountains with a seized cache of weapons including artillery, mortars and small arms.

However, “it would definitely be very helpful” to get military support from the Southern African Development Community, a 15-nation regional bloc.

“I have asked the relevant body in SADC to consider coming to our assistance,” Mahao said.

This new development eerily begins to mirror the situation in nearby, much larger Mozambique, where political disputes between various leaders and political parties had devolved over the past year into low-level insurrection against government forces, after opposition members re-took up arms and disappeared into the rural mountains to harass the government. A ceasefire deal there was reached recently ahead of elections and some of the people hiding in the mountains returned to the capital.

8 Facts about King Moshoeshoe I: The Razor of Southern Africa

Introduction: King Moshoeshoe I, founder of Lesotho, reigned from 1822 to his death in 1870, during a period of immense tumult in southern Africa. He waged one of the most effective resistance efforts to colonialism (from the Dutch Boer settlers and British Empire) over many decades, as well as to Shaka’s military consolidation of what became Zulu Kingdom in the 1820s.

His name was originally a nickname derived from a poem he wrote as a youth, a braggadocio-filled anthem to farm animal theft that could put most hip-hop moguls to shame. From the poorly sourced Wikipedia version of the story:

During his youth, he was very brave and once organised a cattle raid against Ramonaheng and captured several herds. As was the tradition, he composed a poem praising himself where, amongst the words he used to refer to himself, said he was “like a razor which has shaved all Ramonaheng’s beards”, referring to his successful raid. In Sesotho language, a razor makes a “shoe…shoe…” sound, and after that he was affectionately called Moshoeshoe: “the shaver”.

He also wore an appropriately supreme tophat and cape, like the badass king he was.

King Moshoeshoe I with his ministers of state (Bensusan Museum, Johannesburg - Wikimedia)

King Moshoeshoe I with his ministers of state (Bensusan Museum, Johannesburg – Wikimedia)

Additional claims to fame include:

  1. He founded his own all-new clan at age 34. Presumably on the strength of his charisma, diplomatic flair, and cattle-rustling skills. This clan established a settlement in a location that could withstand Zulu assaults. His original clan eventually grew to be Lesotho and environs.
  2. He never lost a major battle!
  3. He ruled for 48 years against a colonial onslaught. Many native rulers in Africa were unable to maintain such a strong level of sovereignty and control in their domains during the period.
  4. He united the various Sotho people into a Basotho nation through a combination of battle followed by compassionate diplomacy (rather than subjugation through conquest).
  5. He was very willing to mess with the Boers as they tried to invade. He would give them fair conditions for maintaining peaceful coexistence and then beat them back when they rebelled. Eventually, of course, they took over much of the outlying territories of his realm (as they did in many places). But he never lost control of his home kingdom.
  6. He beat the British military and then threw them a bone so they could make peace with dignity.
  7. He manipulated various Europeans to get defensive weapons and surprisingly valid foreign policy advice to fight off the settlers. He also used them to help preserve local culture in written form for future generations.
  8. He successfully negotiated an intervention by Queen Victoria to preserve Lesotho against all attempts at settler seizure, via protectorate status...

While this did eventually make Lesotho into a colony, it remained separate and intact from British South Africa and Apartheid South Africa both during and after its colonial phase. The monarchy still survives to this day (now in constitutional form) and the Sotho culture endures. Compared to how many of the surrounding areas fared, the decision to pitch a deal to Queen Victoria makes King Moshoeshoe I look pretty insightful.

Possible coup attempt in progress in Lesotho

Lesotho is a constitutional monarchy surrounded by South Africa, with some prior history of military involvement in its politics. The Prime Minister has fled across the border into South Africa, saying that a military coup is under way.

But it’s unclear what’s actually going on here, because the Prime Minister suspended parliament back in June to avoid a no-confidence vote against his unstable coalition government. And today the military allegedly may have just been trying to take him involuntarily to the king (I assume to insist that parliament be recalled into session and a new government be formed under a different prime minister). The military also claims they were merely acting today to disarm the country’s police force, which they accuse of providing weapons to the prime minister’s party supporters.

According to the BBC:

The army is understood to have acted after the prime minister attempted to remove its chief, Lt Gen Kennedy Tlai Kamoli.

The army said the general was still charge, saying the military “supports the democratically elected government of the day,” Reuters news agency reported.

A spokesman, Maj Ntlele Ntoi, denied staging a coup, saying: “There is nothing like that, the situation has returned to normalcy… the military has returned to their barracks.”

Earlier, troops were seen on the streets of Maseru and there were reports of gunfire.

Radio stations were taken off air and phone lines were cut, although later reports suggested they were working again.

Eyewitness account by Basildon Peta, publisher of the Lesotho Times, quoted by the BBC:

This whole thing started around 03:00. There were gunshots since early morning. The city is currently calm. People are playing it safe within their homes, but there is basically a media blackout.

To all intents and purposes it is a military coup with the aim of ousting the prime minister. There can be no other reason of soldiers behaving the way they have been behaving other than to seize power.

So far we have no reports of killings. It would be correct to call it a bloodless coup attempt. But I am not going to stick around. The chances are the situation may deteriorate. One does not know what is going to happen.

South Africa’s government, which has long had a very influential role in Lesotho’s politics, has said it is monitoring the situation closely and would oppose any unconstitutional change in power there.

The former British protectorate of less than 2 million people is very poor and still has a subsistence-oriented agricultural economy. The government is the largest employer in the country, according to the CIA World Factbook. The military has strongly resisted government plans to reduce its size to a more reasonable level for a country whose outside defenses are actually now maintained by another country (South Africa).

Map of Lesotho's location in southern Africa. (CIA World Factbook)

Map of Lesotho’s location in southern Africa. (CIA World Factbook)

Update, August 31 2014: There has been an attempted assassination against Lieutenant General Maaparankoe Mahao, who was Prime Minister Tom Thabane’s choice to replace Lieutenant General Tlali Kamoli as head of the armed forces. The latter is accused of leading the attempted coup this weekend.

Low-ranking soldiers contacted by AFP said it was unclear who was now giving their orders. They remain confined to barracks.

Prime Minister Thabane remains in South Africa. His political rival, Deputy Prime Minister Mothejoa Metsing, has also now departed Lesotho for Pretoria, at the invitation of the South African government, to try to sort out the situation. This appears to leave Public Service Minister Motloheloa Phooko, from the third rival party in the coalition government, as the acting chief executive, assuming the civilian leadership is still in power, despite the coup attempt.