Burundi Seeks New Direction One Year After President's Death

Evariste Ndayishimiye

As President Evariste Ndayishimiye marks one year in office, Burundi is trying to move out of regional isolation. But human rights abuses and a repressive regime are still a cause for concern.

In Bujumbura, Burundi's economic capital, one quickly finds citizens willing to praise President Evariste Ndayishimiye's first year of a seven-year presidential term. He took over from ally and strongman leader Pierre Nkurunziza in mid-2020, after winning almost 70% of the vote in a national election.

When Nkurunziza died unexpectedly, which the government said was due to a heart attack, Burundi's courts accelerated Ndayishimiye's ascent to power.

"We have produced a lot of maize this year. We won't finish our stocks!" says a maize seller.

A farmer from Bujumbura's wider region says: "Before, money from taxes collected at the district level was not entirely reaching the district administration. Now it is reaching the public treasury."

Graft is a talking point for one farmer at the market: "One of the main achievements is the eradication of corruption at the level of the district administration. Before, you had to pay bribes for services, but now you get services without problems. We're thankful," she says.

There certainly have been departures from ex-president Nkurunziza, despite the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) remaining in power. This worried observers, as senior leadership positions were filled by Nkurunziza allies facing international sanctions over human rights abuses. Ndayishimiye announced COVID-19 was Burundi's "worst enemy", and implemented measures to slow the spread of the virus after Nkurunziza had largely failed to take the pandemic seriously. Ndayishimiye also made clear he would fight corruption and ineptitude in government, and surprised many by including five women in his cabinet.

Broadly, the direction of Ndishimiye's polices have been praised. But for civil society leader Faustin Ndikumana of PARCEM (Speech and Actions for the Revival of Consciousness and the Evolution of Mentalities), implementation of the goals - economic recovery and good governance - lacks strategy:

"Even if you say that you have the ten-year National Development Plan, it's not enough. If you have a plan without strategies prepared at the level of ministries, there are still problems. It's the same case for the policy on corruption. There is no strategy on fighting it," Ndikumana told DW.

But perhaps Ndayishimiye biggest challenge is re-building Burundi's links with its East African neighbors.

An important, small cog in East Africa's stability

When Ndayishimiye took power after Nkurunziza's sudden death in mid-2020, Burundi had become isolated. Relations with northern neighbor Rwanda were particularly tense, because Nkurunziza's government had blamed President Paul Kagame's government for instigating an attempted coup to overthrow Nkurunziza in 2015, when he decided to remain in power longer than his mandated two-term limit.

Landlocked between the largely ungovernable eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, and regional power player Tanzania, Burundi may lack size and clout in the region. But its neighbors need it to be stable, says regional specialist and political analyst Goloba Mutebi.

"Almost with every episode of political instablilty, this usually spreads over into neighboring countries. Burundi generates a lot of refugees that tend to form armed groups to fight whoever is in power in Burundi. So in many ways they do drag their neighbors into their internal issues," he told DW.

For Mutebi, Burundi's strategic importance lies in its "ability to export destabilization to its neighbors."

Initially, Ndayishimiye seemed to hold his predecessor's foreign policy to Rwanda. But the isolation from the East African Community (EAC) and ithe world took its toll, with aid programs drying up and Burundi's economy stilting.

"It seems over time, that Ndayishimiye realised that was a losing strategy. Rwanda has always wanted to have good relations with Burundi, because in a way this guarantees Rwanda's own stability in the long term," says Mutebi.

Ndayishimiye attended the EAC summit earlier this year, something Nkurunziza had not done since 2015, and made overtures on state visits to Kenya in May. Burundian refugees hosted by Tanzania and Rwanda, many of whom fled after the fallout from 2015, have steadily returned. Diplomatic meetings between Rwandan and Burundian officials have resumed, with the aim of thawing relations between the two nations.

"Rwanda doesn't mind much who is in power in Burundi. What matters is the nature of that relationship. We shouldn't forget that before 2015, Rwanda and Burundi were quite close," adds Mutebi.

Burundi's relationship with the DRC and Tanzania is more complicated. In recent years, Tanzania has been either "a proactive supporter of the government in power, or as a mediator". Meanwhile, in the West, the unstable "DRC is influential in so far as it provides a vacuum from which other forces can destabilise the region as a whole," according to Mutebi.

Free speech and opposition politics still under threat

But human rights remain a problem. While the government has lifted some restrictions imposed on the media and civil society, Human Rights Watch describes Burundi's regime as "repressive".

The government also has not done much to distance itself from Nkurunziza's shadow, at least in spirit. On the anniversary of his death, Nkurunziza was honored by the title of 'Supreme Guide of Patriotism in Burundi'. For human rights activist Juliette Nijembere, this is an insult to the Burundian people.

"I am angry to see my Burundian brothers and sisters honoring a tyrant by elevating him to the rank of supreme guide of Burundi. It is a mockery of all of us Burundians and a disrespect for human rights," she tells DW.

Marguerite Barankitse, founder of Shalom House, an NGO known for working with orphans and young victims of conflict, has lived in exile since 2015, and believes human rights violations are still a concern.

"The men in power are under sanctions from the International Criminal Court for crimes against humanity. So the situation has not improved at all, the system continues to kidnap people, continues to impoverish the population, continues to traffick people," she told DW.

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