This seems to currently be the question in Bujumbura, where uncertainty governs at the moment. This coup/non coup led by Major General Godefroid Niyombare is not coming out of nowhere but taking place after over two weeks of deadly protests that have shaken many neighbourhoods of the city and affected all its inhabitants in one way or the other. It’s been a difficult time. People look tired. The people taking active part in the protests must certainly be tired. But other people also look drained and sad, tired of the situation and uncertainty created since the ruling party, CNDD-FDD, announced President Nkurunziza as their candidate for the Presidential elections on April 25. This being a violation of the constitution according to his opponents.
I have been impressed with the efforts of regular people living in the neighbourhoods affected by the protest to continue life as usual. Putting up a brave face, making it passed the barricades and going to work. Those that still have open work places that is. My Kirundi teacher for example puts on his sport attire and scribbles things for today’s lessons on a piece of paper and puts in his pocket. He apologises for his “unprofessional” appearance but protesters would not allow him to go through if they suspect that he is going to work. Part of me feels bad for possibly getting him into trouble but on the other hand with his regular work place closed since the beginning of the protests I am his only source of income at the moment. The economy has plummeted since the beginning of the unrest, bus fares to the interior of the country have up to tripled and phone call cost have skyrocketed. As always, it is the people with the most meagre means that suffer the most. And on top of this it is the worries, the uncertainty, and the exhaustion. “I am so tired” my colleague exclaims the day before the attempted coup. “Psychologically” he says, when I ask him why. “I just feel like leaving Burundi and going so far away that I don’t even hear news from here. I am so disappointed in Burundi at the moment” he continues.
Given all of this it is perhaps not surprising that the city was in a celebratory state on Wednesday May 13, the day of the attempted coup. People were in the street celebrating, going down to main roads where cars and motorbikes with jubilant passengers honked their horns to the celebratory cries of bystanders. Some accounts said that police fled the city during this time but as I made my way to the main road close to my house there were four policemen standing by quietly watching the scene, no one bothering them and vice versa.
I was quite astounded by people’s optimism on that day. Everyone I talked to (and this is just people on street corners in my upper middle class neighbourhood since I did not venture far away from my house) seemed so confident that this was the end of it. “C’est la paix” and “Nous sommeslibres” were the exclamations people called at me. Even when I pushed people and asked if Nkurunziza wasn’t going to fight back, along with the Imbonerakure, his allegedly armed youth militia, they dismissed my ideas and say “non, c’est fini” with a sigh of relief and a broad glowing smile. People probably needed that one day of believing that everything was going to be ok after over two weeks of worries, with no end in sight.
As I and many other residents of Bujumbura got woken up at 4am Thursday 14 May by gunfire it was clear that this was indeed not the end. Peace and freedom that so energetically had been celebrated the day before, had not yet come to Burundi. Quite the contrary, the night and that day was filled with heavy fighting. Now the protesters were laying low in their houses, as pretty much every civilian of the city, and the army split among those supporting Niyombare’s coup and those loyal to Nkurunziza fighting each other in deadly combat. The importance of media and information flow has been highlighted in this conflict with radios being especially targeted and the biggest fight that day being about holding the national radio and television. Twitter was of course on fire but as usual was a double edged sword being just as good at spreading false rumours as it is in bringing people facts. Contradicting information was on there all day, probably only adding to people’s suspense and making this day an emotional roller coaster. As night fell we still did not know for sure who was in charge of the country.
Now, early morning of Friday 15 May it seems clear that there was no coup, the attempt has failed. The gnawing uncertainty of what is next still remains though. Now I feel bad for pushing celebrating people back on Wednesday, trying to point out that this was possibly not the end. I should have just allowed them to have that one day of relief, one day when their faces were filled with smiles rather than drained with worries, one day of sincerely believing that everything was going to be ok, one day of celebrating peace and freedom. God only knows when they’ll have that opportunity again….
Gudrun Sif Fridriksdottir is a PhD candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Iceland and former guest researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute. She is currently conducting field work in Burundi.