Burundi: What Next After the Death of Burundi's Nkurunziza?

Burundi's opposition leader Agathon Rwasa bowing before a picture of the late President Pierre Nkurunziza.

It caught many by surprise when it was announced this week that Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza had passed on. The Burundian government said in a statement that he had succumbed to a cardiac arrest. Nkurunziza had attended a volleyball match on Saturday but started feeling unwell soon after and was rushed to hospital when his condition deteriorated, according to the statement. It was at the same facility, the Fiftieth Anniversary Hospital in Karuzi, that he breathed his last on Monday evening. His death was announced on Tuesday.

Nkurunziza, 55, is survived by a wife, Denise Bucumi Nkurunziza with whom they have five children.

President Paul Kagame was among the global leaders who commiserated with the Burundian people over the death of their leader.

"On behalf of Gov't and my own behalf I sent our condolences to the Gov't and People of Burundi for the passing of President Nkurunziza. This also goes to the family of the President," Kagame noted.

By the time of his death, the wife had been admitted at a hospital in Nairobi, where she was evacuated recently, over an unknown condition.

According to reports from Burundi, the Speaker of Parliament, Pascal Nyabenda will be sworn in as interim president, pending the swearing in of Maj. Gen Evariste Ndayishimiye, who was elected in a Presidential election held on May 20 this year.

According to Burundian journalist Teddy Mazina, the Burundian constitution stipulates that Nyabenda takes over, pending the swearing in of the President-Elect Ndayishimiye, which is expected to take place on August 20.

Ndayishimiye is also the the secretary general of the ruling CNDD/FDD.

"The president-elect cannot be sworn in now because, legally, he is supposed to be installed 90 days upon his election and any attempt to take the presidency earlier would amount to a coup-d'état," Mazina, who is also a human rights activist said.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi, a political analyst based in Rwanda, suggests Nkurunziza's departure is most likely be a continuity of his party's leadership.

"CNDD-FDD won the elections. So there is a degree of continuity there," he says.

What may change, he adds, will depend on the inclinations of the new President.

Whether Burundi can heal from the turbulent leadership under Nkurunziza, Golooba says will depend on whether the new President shares aspirations and ideological orientation with Nkurunziza.

Ndayishimiye, who is also the Secretary-General of the ruling Conseil National Pour la Défense de la Démocratie-Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie (CNDD-FDD), garnered 68 per cent of the total votes with his nearest rival Agathon Rwasa placed second with 24 per cent.

"This is a kind of victory to all the victims of Nkurunziza's leadership who have been saying 'you are not a good president, we have economic problems, corruption problems, health problems' that came as a result of his leadership," he told this publication in a phone interview.

He was referring to unconfirmed reports that Nkurunziza could have succumbed to Covid-19, which different Burundian officials have denied.

If Nkurunziza died of Coronavirus, Mazina says, it is because he didn't put in place minimum health measures and guidelines, as well as awareness and educational programmes for the population to combat the global pandemic.

Optimism for change

"Every country considered the virus as a pandemic and put in place the right measures and deployed all science measures, but Nkurunziza downgraded all the global efforts and went ahead to allow mass gatherings," he notes.

Lonzen Rugira, a Rwandan political analyst, believes that the exit of Nkurunziza from the political landscape could give a maneuvering chance to the next president to set an agenda and open relations with neighbors.

"It's a good opportunity for Burundi to hit a restart button," he says.

He argues that Nkurunziza's presence was always going to overshadow the new President, who has always been the former's protégé.

"The fact that he's out of the picture could give an opportunity to the President to set an agenda that is less divisive, that is much more cooperative with the neighbours and open to the international community," he notes.

This would mean that people may start to return to the country after seeing that there is a new direction that the country is taking.

Rugira however, indicates that there might be rupture at the elite level where the opposition could gain more prominence, but if there is consolidation among the political elites then the country will return to normalcy.


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