Burundi: The CNDD-FDD, a steamroller leaving little space for the opposition

By Olivier Marbot, Special envoy to Bujumbura
Posted on Thursday, 26 May 2022 13:54

In this Wednesday, May 20, 2020 file photo, main opposition party presidential candidate Agathon Rwasa speaks to the media after casting his vote in the presidential election, in Ciri, Ngozi province, Burundi. (AP Photo/Dorcas Nininahazwe, File

Despite some measures of appeasement, particularly among exiles, Burundian political life remains firmly locked by the ruling party. But the 2018 constitutional revision could change the power balance.

Since 2005 and the first election of Pierre Nkurunziza to the presidency, one political party and one party alone has dominated Burundian politics: the National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD). President Évariste Ndayishimiye and his government are from this party, as are most of the local elected representatives and civil servants, as well as 86 of the 121 deputies and 34 of the 43 senators.

Faced with this steamroller, the opposition is made up of several dozen formations – of varying size and strength. At least in theory. In practice, the majority of these parties are nothing but empty shells. And the situation is further complicated by the nyakuri, the practice that came into force in the mid-2000s of creating divisions within parties in order to see a contingent of their members and elected representatives join the majority.

So it is that the Union for National Progress (UPRONA), a nationalist party with a Tutsi majority – a historic creation with a moment of glory that lent its name to one of Bujumbura’s main avenues – is now only a shadow of its former self.

And the Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD), one of the few opposition parties still active, is regularly relegated by the party in power to the status of “terrorist group”.

An unequal political duel

Many MSD leaders, like many other opponents, live in exile and attempt, from a distance, to maintain some influence on the country’s political life. This is a difficult challenge: for most observers, the voice of these exiles is, in fact, inaudible. And their situation is made even more complex by the fact that, since his election, President Évariste Ndayishimiye has invited them to return to the country. Most of them have avoided doing so, convinced that a return to Burundi would lead to serious problems.

In recent years, the country’s political life has been almost exclusively a duel – a very unequal one – between an overly dominant CNDD-FDD and the only party of any importance present and active on the ground: the National Congress for Freedom (CNL).

In 2020, CNL president Agathon Rwasa ran for the country’s highest office against the candidate designated by the ruling party, Évariste Ndayishimiye. Although the latter won, many believe that the election was marred by fraud and that Rwasa should have won. He himself keeps repeating this, patiently preparing his next move and drawing up a gloomy assessment of the first two years of his rival’s mandate.

Burundians in exile must return. It is [only] here that they can act

“They talk to us about normalisation, but I don’t see anything changing,” he says. “The interior minister publicly explains that political parties must function normally, but, at the grassroots level, the administration does everything it can to put obstacles in our way, refuses authorisations, prevents meetings from taking place…”

However, there is no question of going into exile in a neighbouring country or in Europe, like so many others, the leader of the CNL insists. “How can we claim to believe in democracy, in access to power through the ballot box, and not be on the playing field? Burundians in exile must return. It is [only] here that they can act”.

The 2025 legislative elections, which are already on everyone’s mind, seem likely to come down to a CNDD-FDD/CNL confrontation. This is why Agathon Rwasa’s movement is the focus of criticism and attacks from the majority camp.

“I have known him for a long time, he does excellent work in the Assembly committee, he is a courageous man,” Minister of Foreign Affairs Albert Shingir says when asked about the CNL leader. “But we have to be realistic: his electorate is not getting any younger; in 2025, his score will undoubtedly drop. And then, you can’t forget that he is a conservative, whose movement represents a fairly radical fringe of the Hutu far-right”.

The population is very young, many have never known anything other than the CNDD-FDD and do not accept these explanations

This kind of accusation is obviously contested by Rwasa himself, but is often used to discredit the CNL, the MSD or other opposition movements.

“The idea that the government is trying to impose is that the opposition parties are ethnic parties, and that, conversely, the CNDD-FDD is perfectly egalitarian, strictly applying quotas and making no difference between Hutus and Tutsis,” says a Burundian journalist. “It also tends to explain that all the country’s difficulties are a legacy of the former Tutsi government and UPRONA, but this discourse is less and less effective: the population is very young, many have never known anything other than the CNDD-FDD and do not accept these explanations.”

A change of hands in… 2034?

The real balance of power is between the different factions of the majority party rather than between the latter and its opposition. “‘Neva”, President Évariste Ndayishimiye, considered a moderate, regularly clashes with the hardliners in his camp – first and foremost Prime Minister Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni, and Gelase Daniel Ndabirabe, the president of the National Assembly – and he sometimes goes so far as to make the public aware of his difficulties.

Can these internal dissensions really play into the hands of the opposition, or even create the conditions for an alternative government? The hypothesis provokes only a fatalistic sigh from most opponents and observers, for whom the CNDD-FDD’s hold on power is as solid as it is durable.

“The party controls everything, including by force,” says Faustin Ndikumana, president of the association Parole et action pour le réveil des consciences et l’évolution des mentalités (Parcem).

“On the other hand, people are tired, they wanted to give Neva a chance, but they see that nothing is moving and no longer believe in the CNDD-FDD. I don’t think that the party will be able to hold on beyond a possible second term for Ndayishimiye. Which still takes us to 2034…”.

Hope for a cohabitation

For some, however, the constitutional revision adopted by referendum in 2018, by changing the rules, may bring a glimmer of hope to the opposition: it created the position of prime minister and abolished the principle of two vice-presidents (one Hutu, the other Tutsi), but also changed the threshold for the adoption of laws by the assembly and introduced a presidential term of seven years, while that of the deputies remains five years.

You talk about openness, about normalisation. Well, give us some proof of your good faith!

Will the decorrelation of the two elections encourage a rebalancing of powers, or even a cohabitation? Without really believing it yet, some hope so, like this human rights defender: “The CNDD-FDD is in the process of scuttling itself with unpopular measures. If I were the CNL, I would challenge the president directly and say to him: ‘You talk about openness, about normalisation. That’s fine. Well, give us some proof of your good faith!’”

More modestly, a Burundian journalist wonders about the conditions in which the 2025 legislative elections will take place: “Will there be foreign observers, and where will they come from? I think that the EAC (East African Community) countries will send some, perhaps also the AU (African Union), the SADC (Southern African Development Community)…That would already be progress. I have less faith in the presence of representatives from more distant countries, such as Europe. But who knows, there are still three years to go, things can still evolve.”

Understand Africa's tomorrow... today

We believe that Africa is poorly represented, and badly under-estimated. Beyond the vast opportunity manifest in African markets, we highlight people who make a difference; leaders turning the tide, youth driving change, and an indefatigable business community. That is what we believe will change the continent, and that is what we report on. With hard-hitting investigations, innovative analysis and deep dives into countries and sectors, The Africa Report delivers the insight you need.

View subscription options