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Burundi President, with Shrinking Pool of Support, Faces Ouster

NEW YORK, May 14 2015 (IPS) - The days of African presidents rewriting the constitution to crown themselves Presidents for Life may be coming to a close but Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza appears to have missed the signs of this historical shift.

Opposition to his tone-deaf overreach for an unconstitutional third term now includes religious leaders, members of his party, members of the military and a wide swathe of the population.

Even a finger-wagging message from the U.S. was studiously ignored.

Now, street protests have turned deadly as the president’s remaining loyalists turned their guns on unarmed civilians marching with hands up in the iconic “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” of the Black Lives Matter movement.

“Whatever happens in Burundi, this development sends a strong message to other African presidents who may be tempted to cling to power against the will of the people,” said Maud Jullien, a reporter for the BBC in the Burundi capital of Bujumbura.

Recent images of Burundians carried on television, showed crowds of cheering people marching through the streets and chanting “No to a Third Term”. One young man stopped to tell a reporter: “It’s the people’s victory. We fought and were shot at. We didn’t eat but in the end, victory is ours.”

As in Burkina Faso, which recently sent its president packing, military leaders in Burundi have moved into the vacuum left by Nkurunziza who was outside of the country at a meeting of East African leaders in Tanzania when the coup was announced. His whereabouts are currently unknown.

Maj Gen Godefroid Niyombare, a former intelligence chief and ally of the president who was dismissed in February, took the helm and announced that since the president had lost support of the people as well as of “many high-ranking army and police officials”, the airport would be shut down, effectively cutting off Nkrunuziza’s path to return home.

“We don’t think Burundi should be allowed to go to war again,” declared South African President Jacob Zuma after a meeting with Namibian President Hage Geingob. “People must stop the escalation of the violence that is taking place there.”

Zuma said the violence was particularly regrettable since Burundi has enjoyed a decade of peace after a bitter civil war had been hard won.

Rwandese President Paul Kagame also weighed in. “If your own citizens tell you we don’t want you to lead us, how do you say I am staying whether you want me or not?”

Curiously, Burundi is among the top five African countries receiving U.S. military training. Of the five – Nigeria, Uganda, Ghana, Rwanda and Burundi – three are now led by U.S.-trained soldiers, noted Wall Street Journal correspondent Drew Hinshaw.

Sean McFate, who trained soldiers in Burundi and Liberia from the U.S. security company DynCorp, warned: “If the most capable institution is the military, in a crisis, that is what the country is going to lean on, whether that is the appropriate tool or not.”

This partially explains why African leaders initially opposed the siting of the U.S. Africa Command on the African continent.

Although President Barack Obama cautioned in a speech in Ghana that Africa needed strong institutions, not strongmen, his administration has seen the great part of U.S. funds earmarked for training soldiers, not building health ministries or electoral commissions.

Speaking from Tanzania, in one of his last televised addresses, Nkrunuziza said he saw no problems in holding national elections scheduled for Jun. 26. The country’s Catholic bishops feel otherwise.

“Instead of sticking to this path of confrontation which mostly leads to loss of lives, our leaders and all other protagonists should embrace dialogue and consultation,” said Bishop Gervais Banshimiyubusa, head of the Conference of Catholic Bishops in Burundi.

Catholics make up roughly two-thirds of Burundi’s seven million population and yield significant political influence.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

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