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Burundi: Pierre Nkurunziza, mysterious to the end

By Romain Gras
Posted on Tuesday, 9 June 2020 17:56

Pierre Nkurunziza and Evariste Ndayishimiye, CNDD-FDD (ruling) candidate for the next presidential election, at the Bugendana stadium in Gitega province on 27 April 2020. Evrard Ngendakumana/Reuters

In 2015, Pierre Nkurunziza's regime was faltering. Five years later, stifling all protest, the Burundian president turned the situation to his advantage and was about to hand over the reins. Did he really have a choice? Nkurunziza's final act before his death on 9 June was to lever his successor into power: Évariste Ndayishimiye.

On 27 April, in Bugendana, in the province of Gitega, Burundi’s ruling party launched its campaign for the 20 May presidential election with great pomp and circumstance. Activists, cadres, generals… All the top brass of the CNDD-FDD is gathered to welcome Évariste Ndayishimiye, Pierre Nkurunziza’s designated dolphin.

After a few minutes of waiting, the two men appear before a jubilant crowd, each wearing a shirt with the effigy of the other. The dynamic step, the bust straight, the outgoing president savours the moment.

READ MORE Burundi’s outgoing President Pierre Nkurunziza dead from ‘cardiac arrest’

He hasn’t forgotten that just five years ago, his regime was faltering and it felt only a matter of time before he was swept away.

Impeachment and confusion

Demonstration against a third term of President Nkurunziza in May 2015 in Bujumbura.
Demonstration against a third term of President Nkurunziza in May 2015 in Bujumbura. Jennifer HUXTA/REDUX-REA

Mid May, 2015. The Head of State boards his plane at 6.30 a.m. on his way to Dar-es-Salaam. For the past two weeks, Burundi had been shaken by demonstrations hostile to the third mandate he had announced he wanted to run for, in violation of the Arusha peace agreement signed in 2000 and despite a party divided on the issue.

Convinced of his right, Pierre Nkurunziza seemed determined to impose his choice at an extraordinary summit of the East African Community (EAC), held in Tanzania.

It was 1:30 p.m. on 13 May when the news broke: General Godefroid Niyombare, a former chief of staff who had been dismissed from the intelligence directorate three months earlier, announced on the radio that Pierre Nkunrunziza had been removed from office. Two days of clashes, confusion and wild rumours followed, resulting in the surrender of the putschists. The Burundian president had a narrow escape.

READ MORE Burundi: WHO reps expelled ahead of polls set to go, despite COVID-19

This former sports teacher, who joined the bush rebellion in 1995, had nevertheless built up the image of an unsinkable and self-confident leader. It is this self-confidence and a certain tactical sense that allowed him to hold his own against a party that had broken with the rules of the game.

Already in 2014, after the failure – by just one vote – of its constitutional revision project, several party officials had already demanded the heads of two of its closest collaborators: the dreaded Adolphe Nshimirimana, then head of intelligence, and Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni, former head of the police.

Rather than complying, but anxious to calm the game, Nkurunziza had skillfully relocated them to smaller positions. Little did he know then that these two securocrats would play a key role a few months later in safeguarding his presidency.

At the same time, during the long months leading up to the 2015 crisis, the Burundian president did not hesitate to rebuff the moderate cadres of the CNDD-FDD and the highly respected General Niyombare, all of whom came to warn him of the dangers of a third term.

Not having wanted to give anything up, Nkurunziza almost lost everything in this month of May 2015. “There was a real fear in the ranks of the government,” says a Burundi specialist. It was at that time that he fell back on his bush generals, his wife, his family and religion.”

Public disappearance and caution

Hidden away in his fiefdom of Buye, in the north of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, usually quick to mingle with the population, disappears for a while from the public space.

Forsaking Bujumbura, the capital that he never really appreciated and which was at the heart of the uprising, he redoubled his guard. Itinerary changed at the last minute, false convoys, silence from his entourage … His regime “bunkered down” and repressed anything that moved.

The violence intensified further after the death of Adolphe Nshimirimana on 2 August 2015 in a rocket attack, and throughout 2016, to the point that in September the UN decided to set up a commission of inquiry. With little success, admits the Algerian Fatsah Ouguergouz, who chairs the commission between 2016 and 2017: “The position of the Burundian government was that, not having been involved in negotiating the resolution establishing the commission, it recognized neither its legitimacy nor its existence,” he explains. For Burundi, the commission simply did not exist and therefore there was no reason to collaborate with it. »

Faced with an increasingly critical international community, Pierre Nkurunziza retaliates with jingoistic speeches, and multiplies the attacks against his Rwandan neighbour, accused of supporting the putschists. In a remilitarised CNDD-FDD, convinced that it was alone against all, the idea of a plot hatched from outside was all the rage.

With the exception of a lightning visit to Tanzania in July 2017, a historic supporter for the CNDD-FDD, the Burundian president has therefore sulked at all international summits, leaving it to his first vice-president, Gaston Sindimwo, to represent him. Few diplomats still have access to the head of state or his close entourage.

War of diplomatic and political attrition

Pierre Nkurunziza is a quiet man who pretends to play the EAC’s game of discussion for three years, with Ugandan Head of State Yoweri Museveni as mediator and former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa as facilitator. But this process of dialogue has only the name. Opposition and power compete with mistrust in what turns into a war of diplomatic and political attrition.

Mkapa finally throws in the towel in November 2018. As for Pierre Nkurunziza’s opponents, they emerge from this interminable sequence more divided than in 2015, when the creation in exile of Cnared (National Council for the Respect of the Arusha Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Burundi and the Rule of Law) had raised many hopes.

One by one, pockets of resistance gave way and Nkurunziza, who in the maquis had acquired the astonishing nickname of Muhuzu (the “reconciler”, in Kirundi) for his ability to smooth out the rough edges, managed to suffocate the protest. To the point of thinking about a fourth term? The draft new Constitution, voted by referendum in May 2018, seemed to be made for it. Nkurunziza had promised not to stand for re-election – “the president has only one word,” it was repeated in his entourage – but the sceptics were still numerous.

Ambitions nurtured?

Then what happened? Did the Head of State, who since 2015 has overcome all obstacles, fear forcing his luck and his destiny too much?

Some sources within the CNDD-FDD suggest that the 2018 referendum did not produce the hoped-for tidal wave and would have nurtured Pierre Nkunrunziza’s latest ambitions. Nor did he have the full support of the party and the powerful Burundian generals.

The CNDD-FDD has never recovered from the fractures of 2015,” said a former close collaborator of the head of state. Nkurunziza could no longer continue along this path. “2015 was a headlong rush by the regime,” adds Gervais Rufyikiri, former president of the Burundian Senate. It had to come to an end.”

But Pierre Nkurunziza still had to succeed in a triple challenge: to impose a candidate that the army would accept, that would not constitute a threat to the influence he intends to continue to exercise and that would offer him sufficient guarantees with regard to international justice. “The spectre of the ICC has accentuated the rift within the CNDD-FDD between those involved in compromising cases and those who have nothing to do with the latter and do not want to pay for the others,” says a connoisseur of the case.

Several scenarios were then evoked.

Insistent rumours even suggested the head of state wanted to impose his wife, Denise Bucumi Nkurunziza.

Reverend of the Church of the Rock, she has gained visibility in recent years. But it is difficult to imagine that this solution, while reassuring for Pierre Nkurunziza, could have received the assent of the Burundian generals.

A more political profile, such as that of Pascal Nyabenda, President of the National Assembly, also offered certain guarantees and would have been favoured by Nkurunziza.

But since the man had not been through the bush rebellion, he had little chance.

Demonstration against a third term of President Nkurunziza in May 2015 in Bujumbura.
Demonstration against a third term of President Nkurunziza in May 2015 in Bujumbura. Jennifer HUXTA/REDUX-REA

The profile of one general remained an option: a fifty-year-old like Nkurunziza, who had been smuggled into hiding.

Close to the Head of State, of which he was a minister and director of cabinet (military then civilian), with a good knowledge of the party, since he had been its general secretary since 2016, Ndayishimiye ticked all the boxes – those of the party at least.

A favourite in the 20 May poll, he has so far shown no desire to distance himself from the man he called his “Moses” on the day of his nomination as the party’s candidate.

Perhaps the first clues are to be found elsewhere. Such as on the party lists for the deputation, where many CNDD-FDD cadres have been forgotten (this is the case of Pascal Nyabenda, but also of Révérien Ndikuriyo, the president of the Senate, and Willy Nyamitwe, Nkurunziza’s communication adviser).

Opaque party

Should we see the beginnings of a change?

It is too early to say, especially since the CNDD-FDD is an opaque party, reluctant to justify itself, and the urgency was for it to beat Agathon Rwasa’s CNL (National Council for Liberty) in the ballot box, which surprises by the crowd it attracts and the advances it has been making since the beginning of the campaign, despite the repression to which it is subjected.

But Nkurunziza always knew how to show his survival instinct – did he not, three times, escape death? So he took care to watch his back.

In January, the Burundian National Assembly passed a bill guaranteeing him a golden pension – starting with a “luxury” villa, an allowance of 500,000 euros and, for the rest of his life, an indemnity equal to the emoluments of a deputy.

A few weeks later, he was elevated to the rank of “supreme guide of patriotism”, giving him control of the Council of Wise Men, the body that guides the policy of the CNDD-FDD.

In other words, the unfathomable Pierre Nkurunziza secured a place at the heart of the system. Would he have continued to influence the management of power? No one in Gitega would dare to answer this question yesterday, even though former Ndayishimiye collaborators say that Ndayishimiye has so far not shown strong leadership.

Now that Nkurunziza is dead, what kind of a man will Ndayishimiye be?

 

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