Could Pierre Nkurunziza’s departure save Burundi?

2020-03-13

Does the decision by Burundi’s ruling CNDD-FDD party to replace President Pierre Nkurunziza as its candidate for the elections due on 20 May offer hope for this desperate country?

Nkurunziza overstayed his welcome for at least five years by extending his tenure for an unconstitutional third term in 2015. A 2018 referendum approved him amending the constitution to allow him to remain in office until 2034. That prompted suspicions that he would run for office again this year, but the CNDD-FDD surprisingly nominated Secretary-General Evariste Ndayishimiye. There is still suspicion that Nkurunziza might dig in his heels.

However the general view is that he’s on his way out. Ndayishimiye is an army general and Stephanie Wolters, Senior Research Fellow on the Great Lakes at the South African Institute of International Affairs, and other analysts, believe he wasn’t Nkurunziza’s preferred successor. She says the CNDD-FDD’s powerful military elements – unhappy with the poor result of the referendum that demonstrated Nkurunziza’s unpopularity – decided his staying on was untenable.

But would Ndayishimiye effect any real changes? Burundi remains one of the poorest countries in Africa. Malaria has reached epidemic levels and drought has brought famine. This week the official Geneva-based Commission of Inquiry on Burundi urged Bujumbura to reopen the ‘democratic, civil and political space’ – not only because these are basic human rights, but because they are ‘an absolute requirement for the holding of free, transparent and credible elections …’.

Would Ndayishimiye re-engage with the world on reform – or merely tinker to get sanctions lifted?

The commission expressed particular concern about the Imbonerakure – the CNDD-FDD’s youth militia that were carrying out ‘killings, disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detentions, acts of torture and ill treatment and rape against actual or alleged political opposition members.’ The political violence has propelled some 336 000 Burundians across the border. And fears persist that the conflict could reignite old Hutu-Tutsi tensions.

It remains to be seen whether Ndayishimiye wants to fundamentally tackle these problems. Wolters and other analysts note that he is like Nkurunziza, a product of the CNDD-FDD, and a civil war veteran. The key question is how he will engage with the country’s political opposition and civil society, much of it forced into exile.

Constitutional changes after the country’s stage-managed national dialogue in 2018 consolidate the presidency’s power and backtrack on fundamental power-sharing aspects of the Arusha Accords. That process was supported not just by Nkurunziza, but also by the CNDD-FDD, which never felt committed to the Arusha Accords in the first place.

Welile Nhlapo, veteran South African diplomat and Senior Political Consultant with the African Centre for the Constructive Resolution of Disputes, is however encouraged by Ndayishimiye’s performance as the CNDD-FDD’s lead negotiator on political affairs during ceasefire talks with armed rebels after the Arusha negotiations.

But even if Ndayishimiye is forward-looking, Nhlapo says, he might be constrained by the political environment he inherits. Apart from liberating the domestic political space, one of his major challenges will be repairing Burundi’s fraught relations with almost everyone.

One of Ndayishimiye’s major challenges will be repairing Burundi’s fraught relations with almost everyone

Nkurunziza has alienated the African Union and the United Nations (UN), rejecting special envoys and forbidding UN human rights investigators from working freely in the country. So Burundi is isolated. Reconciling with the European Union (EU) could deliver financial support and perhaps investment to unlock the country’s untapped mineral and agro-processing potential. Nhlapo says Ndayishimiye also needs to patch up Burundi’s quarrels with its neighbours, especially Rwanda, but also Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

There are some signs that the outside world is making tentative gestures towards reconnecting with Burundi under new leadership. Several other analysts wonder, though, if Ndayishimiye would re-engage with the world to discuss real reform – or merely tinker with reform to get sanctions lifted.

‘Some suspect Ndayishimiye will just release a few political prisoners here and there, perhaps ease some restrictions on opposition political parties, but not much more,’ says one analyst, requesting anonymity.

That’s unlikely to persuade the EU, for instance, to lift sanctions, diplomats have indicated. They would want to see real reforms, including opening space for political opposition, civil society and the media. Whether the CNDD-FDD would go that far is uncertain, since real political freedom could challenge its hold on power. All this assumes that the opposition can’t actually win the elections, and that’s probably the reality.

The AU has left Burundi to the East African Community, which has been unable to solve the problem

Many observers believe the perennial oppositionist Agathon Rwasa and his National Freedom Council (CNL) would probably win a free, fair and open election. Rwasa is much better known to the electorate than Ndayishimiye and the CNL has a comprehensive national network of offices. But, Wolters says, it’s highly unlikely that the CNDD-FDD would allow Rwasa to win.

He has told analysts he believes he will and if the election is stolen from him, a campaign of civil disobedience would follow. This could lead to political violence, especially because the CNL has a youth wing which has reportedly already clashed with the CNDD-FDD’s Imbonerakure. If such violence is the likely post-election scenario, this would further discourage the EU and others from lifting sanctions and normalising relations.

Lurking below the surface of all this ferment is the latest Hutu-Tutsi question. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which has a wide mandate to probe violence between 1885 and 2006 (thus stopping just short of the Nkurunziza era), has begun its work on the 1972-73 period during which many Hutu, including Nkurunziza’s father, were massacred by Tutsis.

Analysts think it’s possible that the CNDD-FDD could exploit the commission’s findings to mobilise Hutu support before the elections. The TRC is ‘opening old wounds,’ says Nhlapo. The fallout from that is going to be another big challenge for Ndayishimiye to manage.

Can Africa not brighten this rather gloomy scenario? The AU Peace and Security Council’s bold proposal for an AU-led intervention force in Burundi was shot down by African heads of state in January 2016. Since then, the AU has left Burundi to the East African Community, which has been unable to solve the problem.

EAC-led mediation under former Tanzanian president Benjamin Mkapa has essentially collapsed largely as a result of the Burundian government’s unwillingness to negotiate with the opposition on the grounds that some elements had taken up arms.

South Africa, with its long history of having mediated the Arusha Accord which ended the ethno-political civil war and brought Burundi to its current state of de jure democracy, is well placed to intervene successfully. But past South African governments have tended to side with Nkurunziza and the ruling party, and so Pretoria’s engagement has been disappointing, says Wolters.

South Africa’s appetite for intervention may also be dampened in a year when it’s chairing the AU with a mandate to silence the guns – so many of which are sounding much louder elsewhere. So it seems unlikely that the departure of Nkurunziza will salvage Burundi.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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