Will Burundi’s New President Seize the Moment?

The sudden death of the outgoing president, the coronavirus pandemic, and an ailing economy mean that wide-ranging reforms are needed more than ever.

Burundi's national flag is set at half-mast at the state house as Burundi mourns the death of Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, in Bujumbura on June 10.
Burundi's national flag is set at half-mast at the state house as Burundi mourns the death of Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, in Bujumbura on June 10. TCHANDROU NITANGA/AFP via Getty Images

BUJUMBURA, Burundi—On Tuesday, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza’s death was announced, more than 30 hours after he had died. The government said he died of cardiac arrest. Others weren’t so sure.

In the days since the shock announcement, there has been much speculation and reports in foreign media about the cause—including the theory, citing unnamed medical sources, that the president had been infected with COVID-19. The recent campaign ahead of the May 20 election was conducted in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, with no lockdown or strict observance of social distancing at election rallies—while the president’s spokesperson claimed that God had protected the country against the virus. Nkurunziza’s wife was previously reported to be undergoing treatment for the coronavirus in Nairobi, and there are claims that other family members had contracted the disease.

Though testing is very limited, 94 people in Burundi have reportedly tested positive for the coronavirus to date, and only one related death has been recorded. But other observers argue that the coronavirus is a convenient culprit, question the reliability of media reports that Nkurunziza’s wife flew to Kenya because she had the virus, and instead suspect foul play against the president.

When Nkurunziza’s death was announced, people went straight home in a state of fear, because many Burundians have already lived through the death of a president and remember what followed. In 1993, the assassination of the country’s first democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye, was followed by clashes that killed thousands and the flight of more than 700,000 refugees. The following year, Burundi lost his successor, President Cyprien Ntaryamira, who was killed when his plane was shot down in Kigali, Rwanda. The downing of the plane is seen now as the proximate cause of the Rwandan genocide, which claimed the lives of more than 800,000 people.

This time, no disturbances have been reported so far. Officials have said people should mourn the president for seven days. Music on the radio, on TV, and in studios, dance halls, and pubs has been banned, except gospel to mourn the president.

On Thursday, the cabinet met and called for the Constitutional Court to declare the vacancy and announce a replacement. On Friday, the court ordered Évariste Ndayishimiye, a fellow member of Nkurunziza’s party who won last month’s presidential election, to take the oath as quickly as possible to avoid an extended period without an elected authority.

Ndayishimiye, a retired general, won the May 20 poll with 69 percent of the vote. His main challenger, Agathon Rwasa of the National Freedom Council, also a former rebel leader, received 24 percent.

While the electoral commission had hailed the elections as peaceful, with a reported 88 percent turnout, the opposition candidate Rwasa alleged vote-rigging and contested the results in the Constitutional Court. On June 4, the court rejected the challenge as “null and void.” Rwasa pronounced himself disappointed but seemed to accept it, declaring, “let’s give some time and see what will change, because we are Burundians, and we ought to respect Burundian laws.”

The disputed election and Nkurunziza’s sudden death have caused confusion but won’t necessarily lead to instability. After all, the ruling party and its allies were never going to entertain opposition supporters’ calls for new elections on the grounds that Ndayishimiye hadn’t been sworn in yet. Nevertheless, this is a significant moment. Nkurunziza was a pillar of his party and the country—Burundi’s longest-serving president since independence.

As in neighboring Rwanda, Burundi’s history has been marked by ethnic violence between its Tutsi and Hutu population, including genocides both acknowledged and unacknowledged by the international community. Burundi’s stability is important, as events in the country have a disproportionate knock-on effect—for example, the activity of Hutu rebels in the 1990s civil war influenced Rwanda’s decision to invade Zaire, leading to the First Congo War, and Burundian refugees present a humanitarian and political challenge to neighboring governments.

Nkurunziza also set an example for the rest of the continent when it comes to respecting term limits—although it was a position he came to belatedly. In April 2015, he announced he would run again, after 10 years in office and despite a two-term limit, on the grounds that he was elected to his first mandate following the Burundian Civil War by Parliament, not by the people.

Opposition and human rights groups came together to contest this. Clashes and demonstrations culminated in an attempted coup by former intelligence chief Gen. Godefroid Niyombare on May 13, 2015. Within 36 hours, the coup had collapsed, and Niyombare fled to Rwanda. In the ensuing violence, more than 390,000 Burundians were pushed into exile.

In 2018, Nkurunziza won a referendum that extended term limits to seven years and would have allowed him to stay in power until 2034. Yet soon afterward, he declared that he would not be standing for a fourth term. Instead he was, before his death, due to receive the title of “supreme guide to patriotism” and a $540,000 retirement package. Now that he is gone, a new government will have to address the question of refugees, a precarious economy, and a public health crisis.

The Burundian government pushed ahead with the May election despite the first cases of the coronavirus being identified in the country in March. The government suspended most international flights, restricted land travel, and set up temperature-testing at the border and other key places. Ministers have encouraged social distancing and the use of hand-washing points—but no lockdown has been imposed.

The new president does not seem worried about the pandemic and is forging ahead. In his victory speech, Ndayishimiye pledged to listen to all citizens, touching particularly on his campaign promise to allow all refugees—more than 330,000 living in neighboring countries, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees—to return.

“I call all those refugees in camps, to come back and drop away this misfortunate appellation of being a refugee,” Ndayishimiye said. If he honors this commitment, it will boost stability, since there are reports of refugees being recruited by armed groups to attack Burundi.

During the 2020 election campaign, there were kidnappings and frequent clashes between the Imbonerakure—the ruling party’s youth league—and its rivals. According to the opposition, more than 500 people were arrested, including 200 on polling day; dozens were killed and others are still missing. The Catholic Church in Burundi said the poll was marred by irregularities.

Nonetheless, there are several reasons to be cautiously optimistic. There was equal enthusiasm among Hutus and Tutsis to campaign, and the election marks a shift to a new generation both of National Assembly members and voters. Younger voters aren’t swayed by appeals to past freedom struggles: They want answers to bread-and-butter economic problems. Addressing those concerns would be a sharp break from recent government policies.

Since the 2015 coup attempt, the Burundian government has been on a radical, isolationist footing. It claimed the European Union, the former colonial power Belgium, and Rwanda were behind attempts at regime change. While this may mainly reflect long-standing tensions, it should be noted that the senior army and police officers behind the coup did later take refuge in Rwanda, Belgium, and other Western countries—and, despite warrants being issued, none was handed over to Burundi. Exiled journalists and human rights activists who are on the government’s most-wanted list deny working with the plotters, saying that they were only doing their job scrutinizing the administration.

In December 2015, the African Union agreed to send 5,000 troops to Burundi to ensure security. But Nkurunziza called the AU’s bluff, arguing among other things that Burundi shouldn’t submit to troops on its soil when Burundian peacekeepers were active in Somalia. Other members, notably South Africa, backed Burundi—leading the AU to withdraw the ultimatum. Then, in October 2017, Burundi became the first nation to leave the International Criminal Court, over the accusation that the court was only targeting African leaders.

Although the country once depended on the EU for a large portion of its budget, the EU imposed sanctions against senior Burundian officials late in 2015 and suspended direct financial support in March 2016. Meanwhile, Burundi has found alternative allies in Russia and China, which have blocked proposed action against the country at the U.N. Security Council. China has built a new presidential palace and funded dams, roads, schools, and hospitals.

“There are two main views about Ndayishimiye,” said Devon Curtis, a regional expert at the University of Cambridge. “The first is that he is a potential reformer, and that even though he fought with the CNDD-FDD [a rebel group that became Burundi’s ruling party] during the civil war, he was more moderate than some of the other commanders. This view emphasizes the fact that he played a big role in the negotiations leading to the 2003 cease-fire agreement and that he is much more open to discussions with donors and other international actors,” she explained.

“The second view is that Ndayishimiye is controlled by a powerful group of generals who determine the direction of the party and the country [and] will only be able to enact superficial reform,” she added. The truth, Curtis argues, is somewhere in between: “Ndayishimiye is certainly part of a system that has repressed political opponents and that has curtailed political and media space, but he nonetheless represents an opportunity for some change.”

However skillfully Ndayishimiye handles these political and security challenges, he also has to negotiate economic ones. Burundi remains one of the world’s poorest countries. In 2015, GDP growth crashed to negative 3.9 percent. According to the website Trading Economics, annual GDP per capita is expected to reach $218 by the end of 2020—below the $245 it was in 2014. Inflation remains high at 7.6 percent, according to Burundi’s Institute of Statistics and Economic Studies.

In a country where 65 percent of young people lack regular jobs, Ndayishimiye must encourage the formation of new businesses and increase employment. He needs to open Burundi up to investors in agriculture and mines—the country has major potential in rare earth metals, nickel and tin ores, and gold and uranium deposits. Government investment in road and rail infrastructure and shipping routes across Lake Tanganyika could capitalize on potential export markets in Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Finally, there’s a major battle to be fought against corruption. Burundi scores very low on Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, ranking at 165 out of 198 countries in 2019. The government could address this by ensuring consistent punishment of bribe-takers and educating students from a young age about the corrosiveness of corruption. Greater transparency in the mining industry would help ensure that revenues aren’t being funneled out of the country. And improved tech infrastructure would have the additional benefit, through increased take-up of mobile payment systems, of enabling the Revenue Authority to track corporate income and punish tax evasion.

If successful, these reforms could propel Burundi beyond its recent anemic GDP growth toward the ambitious 11 percent growth goal for 2027 set out in the country’s Decade Development Plan (2018-2027). But if Ndayishimiye is going to deliver on these high expectations, he must avoid being knocked off course by political or public health crises before the end of his first term.

Désiré Nimubona is a Burundi-based reporter, covering Burundi, Kenya, Somalia, and the eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo. Twitter: @DFNimubona

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