Burundi: Inside the circle of President Ndayishimiye’s secretive men

By Olivier Caslin
Posted on Thursday, 4 November 2021 09:11

Although Gitega is making a comeback on the diplomatic scene, Burundi's President Evariste Ndayishimiye continues to consolidate his power amidst clan struggles. To assert himself, both outside and inside the country, he relies on a handful of former CNDD-FDD rebels and technocrats.

Burundi’s President Évariste Ndayishimiye came to power in May 2020. The majority of his most loyal collaborators are from the military. They are ‘comrades in arms’ who served in the maquis, where they met after President Melchior Ndadaye was assassinated in 1993.

They are all from the same generation, almost all born in the same year and have moved up the ranks of power: firstly, within the Forces de Défense de la Démocratie (FDD) and then its political wing, the Conseil National Pour la Défense de la Démocratie – Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie (CNDD-FDD), which was formed in 2004 and helped ensure Pierre Nkurunziza’s victory in the presidential elections the following year.

Like Ndayishimiye, who succeeded him in May 2020, most of them remained as close as possible to the former head of state – who died in June 2020 – and formed a caste of ‘generals’ who monopolised the country’s positions of power during his 15-year reign.

The current president’s most fervent supporters can be found within this caste today, as well as his only real adversaries, such as Prime Minister Bunyoni. Given that many oppose his increasingly public decision to step up the fight against corruption as a means of seducing the international community, Ndayishimiye has been relying on his inner circle even more.

“He is not really a networking man,” says a diplomat posted in Bujumbura, or maybe he prefers to limit himself to only one network, that of the CNDD-FDD, which he took over from 2015 to January 2021, and to which he recruits those around him, either out of sincere friendship, careerism, opportunism or simple party discipline. Yesterday’s maquis, today’s civilians and administrators are all at the service of the CNDD-FDD, which has become more powerful and mysterious than ever before.

Prime Niyongabo

Prime Niyongabo, who was born in 1970 on a hill next to the president’s, left Bujumbura’s faculty of economics to join the FDD in 1993. The two men grew closer during their time in the maquis, so much so that Ndayishimiye was a witness at Niyongabo’s wedding, which took place just after the civil war. The former guerrilla fighter became a career officer and climbed the ranks of the military until he became the army’s chief of staff in 2012.

Major General Niyongabo, who is known for his integrity and competence, can count on the support of his troops, who appreciate his desire to professionalise the army, all the while keeping it out of the political crises that are shaking the country. Though a legalist, he was tempted to follow the coup plotters in 2015, but in the end decided to remain loyal to Nkurunziza and subsequently played no role in the repression that followed.

Gabriel Nizigama

Also born in 1970, he comes from the same hill as Ndayishimiye, with whom he may have family ties. He joined the rebellion in 1995, the same time that Nkurunziza, his teacher at Bujumbura’s Institute of Physical Education, did. He earned the nickname ‘Tibia’ in reference to the body part that he likes to break during certain interrogations. He served as a lieutenant-general at the end of the conflict, then became a police commissioner and finally the head of the ministry of public security in 2013.

Still very close to President Nkurunziza, he became the head of his civilian cabinet two years later. He shares this position with Ndayishimiye, whom he openly supported despite the head of state’s advice. When it came to organising his succession, the latter wanted to designate Pascal Nyabenda as president of the National Assembly.

Nizigama did not want to side with Bunyoni, the current prime minister and his sworn enemy, who supported Nyabenda’s candidacy. He even refused to join his government. This dispute could be linked to several rivalries within the business world, which are not always very clear in Burundi. Reputedly very close to Chinese interests, Nizigama is not perceived as the most ardent defender of the policy of transparency that the current president wishes to put in place.

Gervais Ndirakobuca

Gervais Ndirakobuca, who was born in 1970, is another member of the president’s inner circle. He also left Bujumbura’s science faculty to join the FDD in 1993. Loyal to his leaders, who appreciated his efficiency, he quickly made a name for himself within the rebellion with the term Ndakugarika, which means ‘I’m going to kill you’ in Kirundi. He served in the national police force until 2012, starting as a commissioner and rising to the position of deputy director-general.

Following the attempted 2015 coup, he was appointed as head of the National Intelligence Service and led efforts to repress the coup plotters. The European Union (EU) still has him under sanctions. Gervais Ndirakobuca, Nkunrunziza’s henchman, has never been particularly close to Ndayishimiye. He even accepted a ministerial position to better monitor the latter from the inside, in the name of the CNDD-FDD and its ally Bunyoni’s interests.

Alliances are constantly changing, and the minister of the interior and security is getting closer to the president as the months go by, so much so that he appears to be his best asset today, especially in the fight against corruption, which the government’s current number three seems to support at arm’s length.

Albert Shingiro

48-year-old Albert Shingiro knows the ins and outs of the house of which he took the reins in June 2020. This diplomat by training and career, who studied in Canada for a few years, has held numerous positions since 2006, both in the central administration and in various external posts. He worked in the US as a counselor, chargé d’affaires at the UN and then as a permanent ambassador from 2014 to 2020.

He then became his country’s voice on the international scene. His appointment is the reward for a career dedicated to his country and its leaders. After serving Nkurunziza, he managed to gain Ndayishimiye’s confidence. Appreciating his liveliness, the latter entrusted him with his diplomatic agenda, which included important points such as reconciling with Rwanda and resuming dialogue with the EU. The president knows he is loyal to the CNDD-FDD, of which Shingiro has been a member since 2004.

Domitien Ndihokubwayo

An anthropologist by training, he also studied political economy in Germany. This civilian, who was born in 1966, was a consultant at the African Development Bank (AfDB) and then dean for Bujumbura’s Faculty of Law, before he became the head of the Office des Recettes du Burundi (OBR). Nkurunziza sought him out in 2016 and entrusted him with the ministry of economy and finance.

Despite his very close relationship with the former president, he also retained his position when Ndayishimiye came to power. Although he is not particularly close to the president, he serves as his economic advisor, even though his knowledge of this area has often been questioned by some representatives from the major financial institutions present in the country.

Révérien Ndikuriyo

He was also born in 1970 in the southern part of the country and joined the maquis in 1993. He has a leg injury, which makes him limp. Demobilised after the peace agreements, Révérien Ndikuriyo was the south’s provincial governor for a time, before becoming the Senate’s president in 2015. He only left his post to succeed Ndayishimiye as head of the CNDD-FDD, a party whose emblem is an eagle.

Chosen by the current president, he is now his main link with the party. A hardliner with the 2015 rebels, he has been able to temper his discourse to preserve the CNDD-FDD’s unity around its leader, for whom he has garnered significant support in the southern part of the country. He also knows how to pass messages between the presidency and the ‘generals’, in the name of old friendships.

Gélase Daniel Ndabirabe

Like Ndikuriyo, Gélase Daniel Ndabirabe is considered to be a hardliner of the CNDD-FDD, which he joined at its creation after becoming a member of the FDD in 1994 following a short stay in Rwanda. Born in 1973, this smooth talker was the FDD’s mouthpiece throughout the civil war, by the end of which he had fallen to the rank of colonel.

He is said to have served in the southern maquis with Ndayishimiye, before being sent to Tanzania to serve as a steward. His verbal brutality has prevented him from achieving party unity, then and now. The head of state can nevertheless count on him to lend his voice when it comes to reframing CNDD-FDD members, such as during debates in the National Assembly.

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