New dawn or false sunrise in Burundi as new president is sworn in?
After a fraught and chaotic political transition following the death of President Pierre Nkurunziza from suspected Covid-19, Burundi faces a critical moment. The question is, what will incoming president Évariste Ndayishimiye do with his presidential power?
For the first time in 15 years, Burundi got a new president this week with the swearing-in of Évariste Ndayishimiye. His inauguration comes not only two months early, but also amidst significant and unexpected changed circumstances.
In a stunning turn of events, on 9 June, Burundi’s government announced via Twitter that the president, Pierre Nkurunziza, had died. According to the government, Nkurunziza had been taken to hospital after falling ill three days earlier, and, despite an initial recovery, his condition subsequently deteriorated and he died suddenly of a heart attack on 8 June. There are numerous indications, however, that Nkurunziza was, in truth, a victim of the coronavirus, whose existence he had vehemently denied.
Ten days earlier, Burundian newspapers reported that Nkurunziza’s wife, Denise, had been flown to Nairobi for medical treatment after testing positive for the virus and Nkurunziza’s mother died just one day after him. There are also rumours that in the 30 hours between Nkurunziza’s death and its announcement by the government, several of his bodyguards were killed for fear that they would confirm the cause was the coronavirus.
Although Burundi’s Constitution dictates that the president of the National Assembly, currently Pascal Nyabenda, should succeed the president in the event of his death while in office, the Constitutional Court ordered the inauguration of Ndayishimiye to be brought forward to 18 June. Now, after a fraught and chaotic political transition, Burundi faces a critical moment and the question is, what will Ndayishimiye do with his presidential power?
Ndayishimiye takes power in the wake of troubled years for Burundi characterised by violent repression, economic decline and increasing isolationism. His predecessor, Nkurunziza, led a rebel group, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), during the 12-year Burundian civil war, in which grave human rights abuses were committed and an estimated 300,000 people were killed.
After the signing of a peace agreement, Nkurunziza became president of Burundi in 2005. In his first term, Nkurunziza made efforts to foster peace and economic growth, including negotiating with remaining rebel groups, most notably the National Liberation Forces (FNL), led by Agathon Rwasa. Over time, however, Nkurunziza became increasingly erratic and authoritarian. After opposition parties claimed electoral fraud in the 2010 elections, they boycotted the following election rounds. The CNDD-FDD consolidated its power and Nkurunziza’s second term saw an increase in political repression and human rights violations.
The refusal to postpone the election was also tied to concerns about Rwasa. As campaigning got underway, a more mature and polished Rwasa emerged, with toned-down rhetoric, shifting away from his persona as a rebel leader and towards that of a sophisticated politician.
In 2015, Nkurunziza announced he would seek a third term, despite constitutional term limits, sparking widespread protests and a national crisis, including an attempted military coup. Nkurunziza responded with a brutal crackdown, unleashing the Imbonerakure, the CNDD-FDD’s violent armed youth militia, to perpetrate crimes against the population. More than 1,200 people were killed and an estimated 400,000 Burundians fled the country, amidst fears of a return to civil war.
In response to international criticism, Nkurunziza became increasingly isolationist. He demanded that international aid organizations report the ethnic identities of Burundian employees, ordered the UN Human Rights office closed and made Burundi the first country in the world to withdraw from the International Criminal Court.
As international aid declined and Burundi faced growing economic hardship, Nkurunziza came under pressure from leaders in the CNDD-FDD and military to step down at the end of his third term. In 2019, Nkurunziza announced he would not run for re-election, although he was expected to continue to play a significant role in leading the country. Subsequently, a law was passed appointing Nkurunziza as “Eternal Supreme Guide of Patriotism” and providing him with a $500,000 payout as well as a luxury villa, and elections were scheduled for 20 May 2020.
Although Nkurunziza favoured Nyabenda as his successor, the CNDD-FDD ultimately nominated Ndayishimiye, whom they thought better able to attract international investment. Ndayishimiye’s primary opponent was Agathon Rwasa, the charismatic former leader of the FNL. Having formed a new party, the National Freedom Council (CNL), Rwasa’s growing popularity presented a significant threat to the CNDD-FDD.
The emergence of the coronavirus brought new complications as the election neared. Resisting calls for a lockdown, Nkurunziza denied the threat, expelling WHO representatives and insisting that Burundi would be protected by its religious faith. “Burundi is an exception because it is a country that has put God first,” said his spokesperson. Privately, it is suspected that CNDD-FDD leaders feared a lockdown could prompt riots given Burundi’s poor economic condition and a constitutional crisis.
The refusal to postpone the election was also tied to concerns about Rwasa. As campaigning got underway, a more mature and polished Rwasa emerged, with toned-down rhetoric, shifting away from his persona as a rebel leader and towards that of a sophisticated politician. Despite CNDD-FDD intimidation attempts through mass arrests and the murder of political opponents, Rwasa’s popularity surged.
“He would have arrived with no baggage and could have changed everything,” said one Burundian source. “Rwasa came to be seen as almost a messiah of sorts.” The CNDD-FDD worried that an election delay would provide Rwasa with more time to secure support.
Ndyashimiye is a relatively lesser-known figure in Burundian politics and was not closely associated with the government’s repression and brutality in recent years. He is believed to be a moderate who will re-engage with the international community and foster stability.
The election was held with limited external oversight. Less than two weeks before 20 May, the government announced that it would quarantine election observers from the East African Community for 14 days upon arrival to ensure they did not have Covid-19. On 15 May, Facebook, WhatsApp and Twitter were cut off, making it difficult to document the widespread reports of voter intimidation and fraud in the election.
Nonetheless, Burundians turned out en masse and many cast their votes for Rwasa. Most doubt the accuracy of the official results, which awarded the CNDD-FDD 69% of the vote and the CNL 24%. While it is impossible to confirm, Burundian sources say it is certain Rwasa was the true victor. Rwasa tried to challenge the vote, but the Constitutional Court, widely viewed as corrupt, upheld the results. For his part, Ndyashimiye’s response inspired hope for his presidency as he urged the Imbonerakure not to celebrate.
Ndyashimiye now assumes power in circumstances that provide the potential for him to lead Burundi in a new, more positive direction. Although a military general, he is not perceived as a strongman and with few other leadership options, it seems doubtful the military will attempt to replace him.
Ndyashimiye is a relatively lesser-known figure in Burundian politics and was not closely associated with the government’s repression and brutality in recent years. He is believed to be a moderate who will re-engage with the international community and foster stability. There are rumours Ndyashimiye even plans to offer Rwasa a high-ranking position in his government, such as prime minister.
Without the overbearing influence of Nkurunziza, many are hopeful that Ndyashimiye’s inauguration marks the dawn of a new era that will bring needed change to the country. DM
Rebecca Rattner is a human rights lawyer and fellow at the South African Institute for Advanced Constitutional, Public, Human Rights and International Law (SAIFAC). A graduate of Harvard Law School and the London School of Economics, her work focuses on international humanitarian law and armed conflict in Central and East Africa.
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