Burundi’s President Ndayishimiye: new cabinet, new COVID strategy

By Morris Kiruga

Posted on Thursday, 2 July 2020 10:40
Burundi Inauguration
Burundi's President Evariste Ndayishimiye gestures to the crowd after his inauguration in Gitega, Burundi on Thursday, June 18, 2020. (AP Photo/Berthier Mugiraneza)

Burundi's new president Evariste Ndayishimiye set out on his first week in power with a new, leaner cabinet, and a different approach to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Two days after the burial of his predecessor, Pierre Nkurunziza, President Evariste Ndayishimiye announced his new cabinet, comprising of five women and ten men. He retained five ministers from Nkurunziza’s last cabinet, including health minister Dr. Thaddée Ndikumana, under whose leadership Burundi took minimal measures to stop the spread of the pandemic.

Surprises in new cabinet

Among the new faces in the cabinet is human rights defender Imelde Sabushimike, who is the new minister for Solidarity, Social Affairs, and Human Rights. Sabushimike’s appointment makes history in the Great Lakes Region as the first time a person from the minority Batwa ethnic group has been appointed to such a high level office.

Other portfolios now led by women include Justice; Civil Service, Labor and Employment; Trade, Transport, Industry and Tourism; and Communication, Information Technology and the Media.

President Ndayishimiye promoted  Nkurunziza’s former head of intelligence, Gervais Ndirakobuca, to the interior ministry.

READ MORE Burundi needs UN force to stop human rights abuses, HRW says

Ndirakobuca and Prime Minister Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni are both under US and EU sanctions for their roles in the human rights violations of the last government.

New strategy to COVID-19

During the swearing in of his new cabinet, President Ndayishimiye also announced what is a turnaround from Burundi’s current approach to COVID-19. Despite announcing some early preventive measures such as suspending international flights, the country prioritised the campaign and political transition over a serious response to the pandemic.

  • At a campaign stop in early April, Ndayishimiye, then the ruling party’s candidate and Nkurunziza’s chosen successor, told a crowd that “…if some have contracted the coronavirus, it’s so that divine action can transpire.”
  • The country also expelled WHO representatives in May, and used COVID-19 precautions to keep international observers away from the electoral process.

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

Although the country officially has less than 200 confirmed cases, and 1 death, multiple reports indicate the spread of COVID-19 is far worse than currently known or acknowledged.

“The authorities’ reckless approach to the pandemic is adding further uncertainty and fear to an already politically charged atmosphere when accurate statistics and transparency are needed to save lives,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch.

In a report, the rights organisation also said the government of Burundi was “failing to communicate fact-based information on the COVID-19 pandemic and preventing doctors and nurses from responding adequately.

While swearing in his new cabinet on 30 June, President Ndayishimiye declared the pandemic would be “the biggest enemy of Burundians.” This new approach, he said, is because “it is becoming their biggest concern” suggesting the end of the political process in the small East African nation has turned attention to the pandemic.

Bottom Line

As Burundi’s 10th President, Evariste Ndayishimiye will serve a seven year term under new laws passed after a controversial referendum in 2018. In the short-term, he has to deal with multiple crises, the most important being the lack of a proper response to COVID-19.

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