Is Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza playing the terror card?

President Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi speaking to journalists in Bujumbura, 17 May 2015 Image copyright Reuters

In his first appearance since last week's coup attempt, Burundi's President Nkurunziza focused on the threat he said his country faced from Islamist militant group al-Shabab - a statement that took many by surprise.

Many had been expecting the embattled leader to talk about the political unrest which had brought him tantalizingly close to losing his grip on power in the central African nation.

There were also questions about whether the presidential elections would go ahead as scheduled in June. Other than that, questions were being asked about whether the coup attempt had shaken Mr Nkurunziza's resolve to pursue his controversial third-term bid.

But instead of addressing these burning issues, Mr Nkurunziza chose to announce to the media that his country was facing a terror threat from al-Shabab.

The group itself was surprised - its spokesperson said Mr Nkurunziza's remarks were "dumb-founding".

A number of Ugandans I talked to about Mr Nkurunziza's remarks drew parallels with what happened in their own country in 2006 when parliament, on the instigation of President Yoweri Museveni, amended the constitution and lifted the two-term limit on the presidency.

And all indications are that he is now set to run for fifth term.

Until then, Mr Museveni had been credited for bringing peace and stability to his country.

In fact, the Clinton administration described him as part of a "new breed" of African leaders.

Image copyright AP
Image caption Many saw the Ugandan president's decision to put troops in Somalia as an attempt to win back Western support

But like Mr Nkurunziza, Mr Museveni's decision to lift the two-term limit on the presidency came at a great cost to his image - both locally and internationally.

Former US Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Johnnie Carson said at the time that "many observers see Museveni's efforts to amend the constitution as a re-run of a common problem that afflicts many African leaders - an unwillingness to follow constitutional norms and give up power".

Several donors including the UK, Ireland, Norway, and Sweden cancelled millions of dollars of aid to Uganda, saying not enough had been done to return the country to democratic multiparty rule.

Mr Museveni surprised many by unilaterally deploying Ugandan troops to Somalia to prop up the transitional federal government, which was battling Islamist insurgents who later metamorphosed into al-Shabab.

Many analysts saw Mr Museveni's move as an attempt to win back the Western support he had lost on account of his decision to scrap presidential term limits.

The US had for a long time wanted to see Somalia pacified to prevent it from becoming a terror breeding ground for al-Qaeda.

Through his military excursion into Somalia, Mr Museveni effectively played what has variously been referred to as the "anti-terror" card to make himself indispensable to the West - especially the US and the UK.

Uganda's government maintains that the decision to go into Somalia was done in order to prevent the conflict from spilling over into neighbouring countries, as well as to show that African countries can solve African problems.

After the embarrassing 1993 "Black Hawk Down" incident, the US preferred to advance its objectives through proxies, and it is easy to see why Washington found it difficult to resist a strategic anti-terror alliance with Mr Museveni, who had already put Ugandan boots on Somalia's blood-thirsty ground.

Image copyright AFP
Image caption After a US helicopter was shot down in Mogadishu, the US preferred other countries to send troops to Somalia

Criticisms of Mr Museveni's "unwillingness to follow constitutional norms and give up power" not only faded into irrelevance, he was now referred to by the same US government as a "strong ally in the fight against terror".

Several African countries, including Kenya and Burundi, have since joined the "war on terror" under the African Union mission in Somalia.

Therefore, on paper, Mr Nkurunziza may have genuine concerns about a possible terror threat to his country. However, the curious timing of his remarks about a possible terror threat is suspicious - especially when one juxtaposes it against Mr Museveni's 2006 "military charm offensive" to win back Western support after he came in for severe criticism for scrapping presidential term limits.

Is Burundi's President Nkurunziza using the al-Shabab threat to deflect attention from his domestic political woes?

This is the question on the lips of many socio-political commentators and analysts - and the jury is still out.

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