Burundi: Nkurunziza's Closed-Door Strategy Worked to Keep Power

The late Pierre Nkurunziza and his wife Denise Bucumi.

Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza was not one to engage in diplomatic spats. He just ended diplomatic relations that didn't please him.

The International Criminal Court, the European Union, the African Union and even the East African Community are among bodies he either severed ties with, froze engagements or kept them to a minimal.

In his last act, the presidential election last month, Nkurunziza, citing Covid-19 measures announced a two-week quarantine for all foreign observers barely two weeks to the poll, which essentially locked them out of the process.

His relationship with the AU was cordial and he maintained more than 5,000 troops at the African Union Mission in Somalia (Amisom), the continental peacekeeping force protecting the federal government of Somalia, mostly because it brought in much needed revenues through the soldier's salaries.

Nkurunziza's sour relations with international organisations began in 2015 when he insisted on running for a for a third term. There were protests and estimates by the UN and various rights groups say hundreds of people were killed and as many as 400,000 Burundians fled the country.

Later in 2017, Burundi became the first country to withdraw from the International Criminal Court, amid accusations by African countries that the court was targeting Africans for prosecution.

Lewis Mudge, Human Rights Watch director for Central Africa said Nkurunziza betrayed his call. "When Pierre Nkurunziza was sworn in as president in 2005 at the end of a brutal civil war, many hoped he would lead the country on a path of democratic reforms," Mr Mudge said.

"Instead, he leaves behind a legacy of ruthless repression. He ruled through fear to erect a system synonymous with the worst human rights abuses: Extrajudicial killings, torture, disappearances, and the systematic crushing of dissent."

HRW and other rights groups said his death should lead to creation of a truth, justice and reconciliation Commission so victims can get justice.

While the atrocities were mainly internal and perpetrated by the president's inner circle, it was the ordinary Burundians who suffered the international consequences.

"Nkurunziza was willing to isolate Burundi almost entirely from the international community, with devastating consequences for the Burundian population. This has been true in terms of economic support and may prove to be true in terms of public health assistance in combating the Covid-19 pandemic," Jesper Bjarnesen, a senior researcher at the Nordic Africa Institute, told The EastAfrican.

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