Pierre Nkurunziza, who presided over Burundi’s destiny for 15 years, died in June at the age of 55. He died three weeks after the election of his successor, after which he’d been bestowed with the title of the “supreme guide of patriotism”.
The cost of Nkurunziza’s re-election in 2015 for an unlawful third – and final – term is well-known. It brought oppressive laws, brutal repression, arbitrary arrests and huge groups of refugees fleeing overseas. The GDP per person fell to the world’s lowest, overseas investment collapsed, the country was marginalised both regionally and internationally. Ethnic rhetoric underpinned political mobilisation that feeds on the pervasive confrontation with the Rwandan model.
His death means that his successor, Évariste Ndayishimiye, faces a great challenge. It’s a challenge that he is not prepared for, given the pressing demands that result from the country’s deteriorated political, economic and social situation.
Initial decisions by a president usually define the rest of their term. A good place for Ndayishimiye to start would be the immediate release of journalists and various observers condemned for simply doing their job. That is, providing information and monitoring the electoral process.
He would thus show that he is willing to entertain questions on the functioning of institutions, even the abuses of his peers. Hopefully, he might even be willing to deal with the corruption of some of his colleagues.
But above all, at the end of an election that was not dominated by ethnic contestation, he could be the first president likely to put an end to all forms of partisanship that could encourage or revive this cleavage.
It’s a deep and troubling legacy that he’s been bequeathed.
Nkurunziza’s rise to power was hardly auspicious.
In 1993, after 30 years of military rule led by ethnic minority Tutsi officers, Burundi held its first democratic elections. Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, was elected president in July, but was assassinated three months later during an attempted military coup. The country convulsed in a decade of violence and wars.
Painstaking negotiations facilitated by former South African president Nelson Mandela culminated in the Arusha Accords in August 2000. But the conflict dragged on for five more years, before a ceasefire eventually took effect and the means of political transition and the future constitutional framework were defined.
In 2003, the National Defence Force, which had been leading the country since 1966 after overturning the monarchy and proclaiming a republic, merged with the National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), the main arm of the pro-Hutu armed rebellion led by Nkurunziza. CNDD-FDD became a political party.
In 2005, a new constitution was adopted by referendum. The general elections followed in which CNDD-FDD candidates won nearly all seats by a landslide. These elected representatives carried Nkurunziza to the head of state. Nkurunziza quickly ingratiated himself with the population through reforms that aimed to meet urgent social demands such as healthcare and education.
However, the true power was still in the hands of a small council of the main officers who had organised the guerrilla movement and led the civil war.
At the same time, the party strengthened its position in all municipalities. Bit by bit, CNDD-FDD members took charge of all the social and economic activities for rural populations. Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the party, became operational during the 2010 electoral campaign.
Five years later, the CNDD-FDD overwhelmingly won the 2010 municipal, presidential and legislative elections. As the only candidate in the presidential election, due to boycotts from the opposition parties, Nkurunziza won with a substantial majority.
Thus began the slide into an authoritarian regime. The main reason for this comes from the fact that during the 2010 elections, Nkurunziza’s party found itself in a position of strength that even they did not expect. The turmoil and division among the disordered opposition powers gave them free rein.
From then on, “civil society” organisations became the main areas of debate and mobilisation for political, economic and societal issues.
CNDD-FDD leaders were openly intent on taking control of civil society organisations. But this proved impossible in the run-up to the commemorations of the 50th anniversary of independence, in July 2012, which thrust Burundi into the international spotlight. This required that authorities display an atmosphere of apparent political openness and relative national consensus.
The media and civil society organisations thrived like never before and were credited with the success of the public events organised for the occasion. Freedom of expression went far beyond the political issues at hand, and shows explicitly discussed the daily experience and aspirations of citizens. Debates on poverty, healthcare and unemployment were fair game.
All these endeavours found a large audience in the country and beyond. But this Burundian exceptionalism didn’t survive the president’s decision to aggressively end it for his own convenience.
A third term at any cost
There were mass demonstrations when Nkurunziza announced his candidature for a third term in 2015. This was a direct challenge to the constitution, which allows for a maximum of two terms. An attempted military rebellion was quickly snuffed out and the country found itself facing an insurmountable political impasse.
The president and generals Adolphe Nshyirimana and Guillaume Bunyoni opted for heavy-handed tactics. These included neutralising opposition parties, arresting and exiling CNDD-FDD dissidents and destroying independent radio stations.
The grim outcome forced CNDD-FDD leaders to push out a president who was also increasingly facing regional and international isolation. A new constitution, adopted in 2018, eliminated the main gains from the Arusha Accords in terms of democratic representation of all parties. The institutions in charge of truth-telling and laying down justice (the press, the courts, the electoral monitoring body) were brought into line.
After guaranteeing the outgoing president a sumptuous pension, the “most neutral” candidate, General Évariste Ndayishimiye, became the new president in a contested election. His victory in the presidential election in May was made official only a few days before Nkurunziza’s death.
The maturity of the opposition, the firm position of the Catholic Church on these results and, above all, a common fear, prevented a new crisis.
Whether Burundi can chart a different course under Ndayishimiye is unclear. Burundians must be hoping that it does.
Translated from the French by Rosie Marsland for Fast ForWord