THE ROAD SOUTH FROM THE BORDER wound through the dense forest of northern Burundi like a thread tracing its course through a medieval maze. The tranquility of that October morning in 1993—the calm, and the routine stamping of official papers and passports at the border post at the end of the bridge that marked the end of Rwanda to the north—conspired with the pleasant weather to suggest the atmosphere of another normal day.
As became clear after I crossed the border and traveled south, the biggest challenge was how to answer the question of what was normal and what was not. It had been six days since Burundi's president, Melchior Ndadaye, and seven of his ministers, had been bayoneted to death by middle-ranking officers from the army paratroop regiment. The hundred or so officers seized the national television station in the capital, Bujumbura, and proclaimed the creation of the Comité nationale du salut publique (CNSP: National Committee of Public Salvation). The coup brought an end to Burundi's already tense transition from military dictatorship to democracy. That transition had led to Ndadaye's election four months earlier on June 1 1 and the election of a parliament dominated by his Frodebu party. 2 The CNSP survived for only four days. The officers behind it were isolated by others within the armed forces who were reluctant to take the risk of being associated with a coup that opposed the path upon which other army officers had set Burundi two years beforehand. 3 But the collapse of the CNSP and the eventual arrest of its leaders did not mark and since has not marked the major turning-point sought by the architects of African democracy—neither in Burundi nor elsewhere. It did not mark a confirmation that the major shift—away from dictatorship, military rule, bad government, and clan-based elitism—had been achieved. Instead, it allowed the more cautious members of the armed forces to regroup and resume their key role within the political life of the country.
At heart, the history of Africa since the end of the Cold War has been dominated by such clashes between entrenched, illegitimate, and generally