Burundi: Could Pierre Nkurunziza's Departure Save Burundi?

Vue de Bujumbura, capitale du Burundi.

Does the decision by Burundi's ruling CNDD-FDD party to replace President Pierre Nkurunziza as its candidate for the elections due in May offer hope for this desperate country? Nkurunziza has overstayed his welcome for at least five years by extending his tenure for an unconstitutional third term in 2015, through a legal sleight of hand.

In 2018 a referendum approved changing the constitution to allow him to stay on until 2034, prompting suspicions that he intended to run again this year at least. But then the CNDD-FDD nominated another candidate for the election, its secretary-general Evariste Ndayishimiye.

There is still some lingering suspicion that Nkurunziza might somehow at the last minute dig in his heels. However the general view is that he's on his way out. Ndayishimiye is an army general, and Institute for Security Studies consultant Willie Nindorera believes that the powerful military - unhappy with his handling of the crisis and weakening of the economy - wants Nkurunziza to go.

This also seems to rule out the possibility that the new man might be a mere puppet with Nkurunziza pulling the strings. So if Ndayishimiye is going to be his own man, will he effect the real changes that are so critically needed? Burundi remains one of the poorest and least developed countries in Africa. Malaria has reached epidemic levels and drought has aggravated already critical food insecurity.

Ndayishimiye will most likely tinker with reform to persuade the EU and others to lift sanctions

And politically, Nkurunziza and the CNDD-FDD have ruthlessly suppressed any opposition to their stranglehold on power - a regime brutally enforced by their thuggish youth militia, the Imbonerakure. The political violence has propelled some 350 000 Burundians across the border. And fears persist that the conflict could reignite the old Hutu-Tutsi tensions that are now dormant.

So the likely new president has the opportunity to make changes, if he chooses to. But will he? Nindorera believes Ndayishimiye will most likely only tinker with reform in order to try to persuade the European Union (EU) and other Western powers to lift sanctions. The restrictions were imposed in 2015 when Nkurunziza clung to power unconstitutionally - thereby plunging the country into a state of instability it has never recovered from.

Ndayishimiye might release a few political prisoners, perhaps ease some restrictions on opposition political parties, but not much more. It appears that he would be more of a Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa than an Angolan President João Lourenço. Nindofera doesn't see Ndayishimiye attacking the financial interests of Nkurunziza or his family the way Lourenço has done with the Dos Santos children, for instance.

Others compare Ndayishimiye's likely performance to that of Democratic Republic of the Congo President Félix Tshisekedi, who also took over from a president who was belatedly pressured to stand down. (Though of course in each case the detailed circumstances differ.)

It appears that Ndayishimiye would be more of a Mnangagwa than a Lourenço

But will tinkering be enough to persuade the likes of the EU to lift sanctions? That remains uncertain and depends on circumstances on the ground. But the possibility can't be entirely excluded seeing that some European countries are eager for change and ready to make concessions if they think these might encourage such change.

The wild card, as in Zimbabwe, could be the opposition. Other than being a punching bag for the ruling party, it barely exists and doesn't have a real chance of winning the elections, Nindorera believes.

The perennial oppositionist Agathon Rwasa and his National Freedom Council (CNL) party does however probably enjoy slightly more support than Ndayishimiye and the CNDD-FDD says Nindorera. This means the CNL could win a free and fair election, though maybe not in the first round of the presidential poll. But in a second round he is sure Rwasa would prevail, with the backing of other opposition candidates.

But Nindorera is quite sure the regime will not allow Rwasa to win. The electoral commission wouldn't declare him victor and if he appeals to the Constitutional Court it will reject his complaint because it's stacked with CNDD-FDD judges, he says.

South Africa is perhaps the only country that could intervene successfully in Burundi

Nindorera has however recently spoken to Rwasa, who he says believes he can and will win. And if the victory he believes is rightfully his is stolen, he will take to the streets in a campaign of 'civil disobedience'. This, Nindorera suspects, would lead to violent repression and an upsurge of instability - which would likely discourage the EU and others from lifting sanctions and normalising relations. Compare Zimbabwe post 2018 elections.

Can Africa not help? The African Union (AU) and regional economic communities have mainly left it to the East African Community, which has been unable to solve the problem and has discouraged others from trying. South Africa, with its history of mediating the Arusha Accord which ended the civil war and brought Burundi to its current state of de jure democracy, is perhaps the only country that could intervene successfully.

But Pretoria shows no signs of doing so. In a year when it is chairing the AU with a mandate to silence the guns - many of which are sounding much louder elsewhere - it seems unlikely it will find the time or muster the inclination to do so.

Peter Fabricius, ISS Consultant

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