JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — After weeks of street protests in Burundi's capital, a prominent army general has declared a coup over the president's decision to stand for a third term.
President Pierre Nkurunziza, who has defiantly refused to back down, is in Tanzania for crisis talks with East African leaders. The situation on the ground in Bujumbura, the Burundian capital, remains unclear. While protesters are celebrating victory, the presidency is denying that the coup attempt has succeeded, calling it a "joke."
At stake in the crisis is Burundi's fragile democracy — and potentially, regional security. While the struggle so far has largely been about power, not ethnicity, there are growing concerns it could escalate into factional fighting along ethnic lines.
Burundi, which gained independence from Belgium in 1962, went through decades of coups and ethnic conflict. This was followed by a 12-year civil war in which 300,000 people died in fighting between the minority Tutsi-dominated army and predominately Hutu rebel groups.
Nkurunziza is a former rebel leader who has served two terms already, but wants another, in violation of Burundi's constitution. A third term would also run against the Arusha accord, a peace deal brokered by Nelson Mandela that ended civil war and led to elections in 2005. Nkurunziza and his allies claim he can run again because his first term he was appointed and not elected.
But many Burundians disagree, and weeks of unrest have followed Nkurunziza's nomination by his party to stand in June polls. Tens of thousands of people have fled to Rwanda and other neighboring countries, and at least 20 have died in violence including a heavy handed police crackdown on demonstrations.
On Wednesday, Maj. Gen. Godefroid Niyombare — a former intelligence chief, fired in February by Nkurunziza — announced that the president had been "dismissed." Niyombare said he was working with civil society groups to form a transitional government. But it is not clear how much support he has from other army officers.
Regional leaders have likely been keeping a close eye on events in Burundi for another reason: presidents of several neighboring countries are also running up against term limits.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame's second seven-year term in office ends in 2017, and under Rwanda's constitution, he can't run again for the presidency. Despite this, there have long been rumblings he might try for a third term. Next year the presidents of Congo-Brazzaville and the Democratic Republic of Congo will also see the ends of their two terms.