Burundi General Godefroid Niyombare, who announced the overthrow of the president Wednesday, is a former member of a feared rebel army, powerful spy chief, diplomat and respected army officer.
An ex-chief of staff of the army and one-time ambassador to Kenya, Niyombare has a reputation for professionalism and integrity, commanding respect among rank and file soldiers in the new Burundi that emerged after the end of a brutal civil war in 2006.
During Burundi’s 13-year civil war, Niyombare fought alongside Pierre Nkurunziza, who led the rebel CNDD-FDD and went on to become president. The rebel force, like all sides in the conflict, was implicated in widespread atrocities including ethnic massacres.
With the end of the war and a return to peace, Niyombare rose through the ranks becoming deputy head of the army and then chief of staff. In December he was appointed head of the national intelligence, placing him at the heart of government affairs and the president’s powerful and shadowy security apparatus — which had been accused of helping the president by intimidating opponents.
Niyombare’s loyal rise to the top came to an abrupt end less than three months later when he was fired in February after privately opposing Nkurunziza’s intention to run for a third term.
His deputies at the time, intelligence chief of staff General Leonard Ngendakumana and the head of the domestic intelligence division, General Sylvestre Ndayizeye, were also sacked.
Critics say Nkurunziza’s third term bid goes against the constitution and the Arusha peace deal that ended Burundi’s bloody civil war.
At the time of his sacking, a senior CNDD-FDD official said Niyombare and his deputies were punished for asking the president not to stand for re-election in June. Many top generals privately feared the attempt by Nkurunziza to stay in office could plunge the country back into chaos, and the army has since been at pains to maintain its neutrality in the political dispute.