Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza. Picture: Brendan Smialowski

Cape Town - The South African government hinted but would not explicitly state on Friday that it believed Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza should not run again for president in this year’s elections.

His decision to do so last month sparked over two weeks of violent protests which culminated in a military coup attempt on Thursday. On Friday, troops loyal to Nkurunziza put down the coup and arrested most of the officers involved except for the ringleader, former military intelligence chief Major-General Godefroid Niyombare who remained at large.

On Friday, South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Maite Nkoana-Mashabane said at a press conference in Pretoria that “South Africa condemns in the strongest possible terms any attempt to change a democratically elected government through unconstitutional means”.

South Africa supported the African Union’s rejection of unconstitutional change of government and its commitment to the rule of law and democratic processes. South Africa also supported the efforts of the East African Community (EAC) and African Union to help Burundi return to constitutional order.

Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa attended the EAC summit in Dar es Salaam which was discussing how to resolve the growing crisis when the coup attempt took place in Bujumbura.

Nkoana-Mashabane said South Africa appealed to the Burundians “to resolve their differences through dialogue and peaceful means, within the framework of the country’s constitution and in the spirit of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement.”

That agreement, brokered by former President Nelson Mandela and signed by most of the Burundian political parties in Arusha, Tanzania in August 2000, made it clear that Nkurunziza’s presidency should end this year.

Nkurunziza had justified his decision to contest the presidential elections later this year on the grounds that the constitutional limit of two terms does not apply to his first term as president from 2005 to 2010 because he was “appointed” by legislators rather than directly elected by the people.

Burundi’s constitutional court upheld his interpretation of the constitution.

But the Arusha agreement made clear that his first period in office should count as his first presidential term because it said in Article 7 (c) of its Protocol II that “For the first election, to be held during the transition period, the President shall be indirectly ELECTED as specified in article 20, paragraph 10 below.”

Article 20, paragraph 10 stated that “The first post-transition President shall be elected by the National Assembly and Senate sitting together by a majority of two-thirds of the votes.”

Nkoana-Mashabane was asked if South Africa’s call for the Burundi crisis to be resolved in the spirit of the Arusha agreement implied that it believed Nkurunziza should not contest this year’s election.

She would not confirm or deny this, saying only that the East African Community was dealing with the Burundi issue and helping the political leadership of Burundi to interpret their own constitution to decide on the term limit question.

“What we are emphasising is that the solution to a political challenge and interpretation thereof should not lead to an unconstitutional change of government and unfortunate loss of innocent civilian lives.

“That if there is to be a change of government, can the democratic process be given an opportunity; yes still informed by Arusha. But the full interpretation thereof.”