Lonely blues

Burundi: President Ndayishimiye is trying to bring the country out of its isolation

By Romain Gras

Posted on July 8, 2021 23:21

Firefox_Screenshot_2021-07-07T14-21-13.741Z © Burundi’s President Evariste Ndayishimiye prepares to grant a presidential pardon to more than 5,000 inmates in Bujumbura, as part of efforts to ease prison congestion, 26 April 2021. Evrard Ngendakumana/REUTERS
Burundi’s President Evariste Ndayishimiye prepares to grant a presidential pardon to more than 5,000 inmates in Bujumbura, as part of efforts to ease prison congestion, 26 April 2021. Evrard Ngendakumana/REUTERS

This event seemed unimaginable only a year ago. On 1 July, on the occasion of the 59th anniversary of Burundi’s independence, Bujumbura’s Intwari stadium welcomed, among its distinguished guests, Rwanda’s prime minister Édouard Ngirente.

This is the first sign of a reconciliation between the two countries, which began almost a year ago.

The presence of the Rwandan head of government – a level of representation unheard of for several years – was accompanied by an optimistic speech and a letter from President Paul Kagame calling for “a strengthening of the historical ties between [our] two brotherly countries”.

Willingness to cooperate with everyone

Improving relations between Gitega and Kigali has been one of Burundi’s President Evariste Ndayishimiye’s diplomatic strategies since his arrival to power in June 2020.

This contrasts sharply with Pierre Nkurunziza’s last term, which was marked by the country’s growing isolation. In fact, the former president made only one trip – to Tanzania, one of the ruling Conseil National pour la Défense de la Démocratie-Forces de Défense de la Démocratie’s oldest supporters – during his five-year term. Ndayishimiye’s first term in power, on the other hand, was characterised by a willingness to cooperate with everyone.

The figures sum up the situation well. Since taking office in June 2020 and until last July, the new Burundian President visited nine African countries, succeeded in getting the United Nations to remove Burundi from its political agenda and resumed dialogue with the European Union (EU), with a view to lifting economic sanctions.

Change in policy

On the regional diplomatic scene – after several years of fruitless dialogue with the opposition under the auspices of Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, who acted as Burundi’s mediator – Ndayishimiye has gradually resumed contact with his neighbours.

In contrast, his predecessor had shunned all East African Community (EAC) summits of the since the 2015 political crisis. The new Burundian President has introduced this policy change to bring Burundi out of diplomatic isolation amidst a shifting regional context and to make his country a better trading partner, as well as a potential investment destination.

It is therefore no coincidence that in May, Ndayishimiye devoted a two-day visit to Kenya, the region’s main economic power, which took over the EAC’s rotating presidency at the beginning of the year. In addition to opening up new economic opportunities for his Burundian counterpart, Kenya’s President Uhuru Kenyatta is also playing a role in facilitating the country’s return to the regional scene.

Strategic partnerships

A few weeks before this visit to Nairobi, Gitega started to improve ties with Uganda, another strategic partner. The strong links between the two countries date back to the Arusha peace agreement negotiations from the early 2000s, when Museveni played the role of mediator. But this relationship has had its ups and downs.

Burundi’s desire to reopen diplomatically and economically comes at a good time for Kampala, which believes that Ndayishimiye would make a good potential ally in its crisis with Rwanda. Kigali and Kampala have been accusing each other of destabilisation for several years and the mediation launched in August 2019, overseen by the Democratic Republic of Congo’s (DRC) President Félix Tshisekedi and Angola’s President Joᾶo Lourenço, has not led to normalised relations.

It is within this context that Museveni and Ndayishimiye announced that a road would be constructed linking Uganda and Burundi through Tanzania – thus bypassing Rwanda.

This project has several advantages. For Gitega, it serves as an additional commercial outlet, while for Kampala it is a way to help isolate Rwanda, whose border with Uganda has been closed since 2019.

This is proof that Museveni attaches importance to this rapprochement with Burundi, as Kampala’s strongman rolled out the red carpet when his counterpart visited, by sending his UN representative to Gitega to accompany Ndayishimiye.

Diplomatic operaations

Burundi’s President does not intend to stop there in his diplomatic mission, as he now wants to establish links with the DRC.

On 28 June, Ndayishimiye sent Albert Shingiro, his foreign affairs minister, to meet with Tshisekedi before agreeing to a first tête-à-tête with his Congolese counterpart.

The latter’s arrival to power in January 2019 and his willingness to cooperate with his neighbours, particularly within the security field, has opened up new prospects that Gitega does not want to miss out on. Especially since Kinshasa and Kigali’s reconciliation, as well as the prospect of increased cooperation between the two countries in eastern DRC, is worrying some neighbours.

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