Burundians in Two Minds About Nkurunziza's Legacy

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

While claiming to rule by divine will, in the last couple of years, Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza turned the country into a living hell for many. Will Burundi be able to overcome his legacy?

Although he was due to step down at the end of his third term at the end of August, President Pierre Nkurunziza was widely expected to remain politically influential behind the scenes. His sudden death at 55, plunged the country's leadership into some disarray. The Constitutional Court ruled on Friday that the late president's elected successor, Evariste Ndayishimiye, was to be sworn in quickly.

The constitution calls for the speaker of the national assembly to step in if the president dies, but the court deemed this "not necessary" since a replacement had already been elected.

Was this a first sign that the old elite is trying to cling to power? There is some truth in that, said Onesphore Sematumba, an analyst for the International Crisis Group.

But the court's decision was politically motivated. "They acted to prevent a transition led by the president of the parliament, who was a rival of Evariste Ndayishimiye during the party's internal discussions over Nkurunziza's succession," he told DW, calling it a "sage" decision to avoid strife.

Third term disaster

Burundi has plenty of problems as it is. Three-quarters out of a population of ten million live in poverty, according to the World Bank. Life expectancy is around 57 years. The World Happiness Report 2018 ranked it as the globe's least-happy nation. That was in the middle of Nkurunziza's third mandate, deemed unconstitutional by his opponents and critics.

The former Hutu rebel's decision to hold onto power by all means and run for a third term in 2015 had dire consequences. Burundians took to the streets to protest and were met with brutal repression. The violence left at least 1,200 dead. Some 400,000 people fled the country. More than 10,000 were imprisoned and 3,000 disappeared. The media was muzzled.

"It was the end of free speech, political opponents were forced into exile, the country went into political isolation," said analyst Sematumba. "Burundi was in confinement before COVID-19."

Aline Ndenzako, the niece of the country's independence hero Prince Louis Rwagasore, described Nkurunziza' legacy in harsh terms. "He left Burundi in a pitiful state: an economically drained country, closed in on itself, where fear reigns supreme," she told DW. "He made terror, demagogy and corruption his mode of governance."

A more nuanced view

Journalist Moses Havyarimana pointed out that most of the criticism comes from Burundians outside the country. In Burundi itself, people have another perspective on Nkurunziza's.

"Despite some shortcomings of his tenure in the 15 years, if you see the current situation, whereby a president dies and the country remains stable, with no violence, no bloodshed, this means a lot about his legacy," Havyarimana told DW.

"Here in Burundi people say that President Nkurunziza brought democracy to the country, because [2020] was going to be the first time for a Burundi president to peacefully and democratically hand over power to another president. That never happened in Burundi since its independence in 1962."

Analyst Sematumba concured: "During his first two mandates he toed the line of the Arusha Accords," of 2000, which brought to end a brutal civil war and sought to establish the foundation for a lasting peace between the country's Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority.

"In this period we saw civil society assume an important role in the country. Many independent radio stations emerged due to press freedom. This was also when Nkurunziza introduced numerous important reforms like free access to health care for pregnant women and children under five or seven years of age," Sematumba said.

International pariah

Western donor countries and international organizations started to get worried about Nkurunziza's dictatorial tendencies as early as his second mandate. In 2014, amid rising discontent, jogging was banned in the country, to prevent group exercise to be used as a cover for political meetings. Following the violence after the president's third run for a mandate, the United Nations ordered an investigation into accusations of human right crimes by the regime.

The European Union and the USA stopped direct aid. As more than half of the country's budget was dependent on donors, the economic crisis was further exacerbated. But journalist Havyarimana sees a silver lining. "A country that can't find its own budget can't be considered as independent," he said, adding that, today, Burundi finances up to 90% of its own budget.

President elect Evariste Ndayishimiye seems less sanguine. He has made it clear that he will seek to normalize relations with the international community. Since relations had improved markedly with Russia and China, and, Rwanda aside, were never an issue with the East African Community (EAC), the country's future leader can only have meant the West. Thus, his foremost hope is to have sanctions lifted and aid and investments resumed, to help relaunch the faltering economy.

Tightrope act

Complying with the demands of the West will require some juggling on his part, said Onesphore Sematumba. He doesn't doubt the general's good will, but "let's not be naive," he said.Nkurunziza might be gone "but the system he built up in the last five years stands firm."

The ruling CNDD-FDD party came out of last May's elections with renewed strength. The same generals remain in power, the party's youth organization Imbonerakure, accused of many violent crimes against critics and opponents, has not been disbanded.

"To implement political and diplomatic reforms, Ndayishimiye will have to negotiate his margin of maneuver within the boundaries that are in place," Sematumba said. At the same time, he must take care not to scare anyone in the CNDD-FDD system. While Ndayishimiye is a very different man from his predecessor, seen as affable and much more open, "I probably do not need to remind anyone that he is a product of the system himself," the analyst warned.

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