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Burundi/Kenya: What Ndayishimiye’s visit with Kenyatta means for the EAC

By Victor Abuso
Posted on Friday, 4 June 2021 15:10

Burundi’s President Evariste Ndayishimiye speaks at Jomo Kenyatta International Stadium in Kisumu County on 1 June 2021. (Photo Twitter/@StateHouseKenya)

With a recent visit to neighbouring Kenya, Burundi’s President Evariste Ndayishimiye is carrying on his diplomatic mission to reestablish his country as a key strategic partner for trade, investment and politics in the East Africa Community, with a message that the tiny nation is ready for closer and better cooperation.

Kenya was his third country to visit in the region after he acceded to power in June 2020, following his election.

His first visit as president was last year, to Tanzania, a country that many Burundians consider a second home, given that it houses the largest population of Burundian refugees (140,740) , but also imports majority of its goods through the Dar es Salaam Port.

While in Tanzania, he referred to the Late President John Magufuli as his father, remarks he repeated while visiting Uganda in May when he met his counterpart Yoweri Museveni.

Burundi’s interest in Kenya

But Ndayishimiye’s visit to Kenya was not just ceremonial, as the others, but carried more weight in terms of influence.

Abbas Mbazumutima, a political commentator with the independent Iwacu newspaper in Burundi, says Ndayishimiye’s visit was crucial given the economic and political powerhouse that is Kenya.

“He [Ndayishimiye] understands that in less than one year in office, he has to meet some of the best and get the experience, that is why he went to Kenya,” says Mbazumutima.

By warming up to Kenya, Ndayishimiye may also be able to enlist in Nairobi’s help as a mediator between Burundi and Rwanda.

Since the failed coup in 2015, that was to remove the late president Pierre Nkurunziza from power, the relationship between Burundi and Rwanda has continued to deteriorate.

Burundi accuses Rwanda of protecting and refusing to extradite some of the coup plotters, who have found a safe heaven in the neighbouring state following the botched coup.

While Ndayishimiye did not publicly broach this sensitive topic with President Uhuru Kenyatta, Mbazumutima says it’s very likely they spoke about it in private, especially given that Kenyatta is also the chair of the EAC regional bloc and has maintained a cordial relationship with Rwanda’s Paul Kagame.

“As the regional leader, President Kenyatta can help end this bad blood between Burundi and Rwanda for a stronger East Africa Community,” he says.

Kenya’s help with Burundi’s politics and security

During Burundi’s civil war between 1993-2005, Kenya was among the regional countries which sent its peacekeeping troops to support and help efforts to enforce a lasting peace after the Arusha peace and reconciliation deal in 2000.

Though not one of the major countries that hosts Burundian refugees, some 4700 of them have found refuge in Kenya.

President Ndayishimiye was at pains to show gratitude for Kenya’s help during the difficult times, says Reginalda Wanyonyi, a former Kenyan legislature now political regional analyst.

Kenya has been seen as a reluctant leader in the region, something that Kenyatta is trying to deal with at the moment.

“Burundi is one of us in the region, it has come from far and Kenya has never abandoned its neighbour,” she says.

Close relations between Kenya and Burundi were set in motion by Deputy President William Ruto, who spent time with the late President Nkurunziza during a regional summit in Tanzania, following the coup in 2015.

Since then, Nairobi remained close to Bujumbura, having sent an envoy to the Burundian capital to visit the late president before his death in 2020.

“I foresee a better East Africa Community, we now see regional leaders visit each other, like [President] Samia Suluhu Hassan of Tanzania did,” she says.

Why is Kenya interested in Burundi ?

Kenya seems to be on a continued mission to economically and politically influence the East African region through trade and investments.

In just a span of one month, President Kenyatta has hosted two regional leaders: President Samia Suluhu Hassan of Tanzania and now Burundi’s Ndayishimiye.

His meeting with the Burundian leader at the lakeside city of Kisumu culminated in the signing of bilateral agreements on trade and investment, aimed at strengthening and deepening ties between the two EAC member states.

The agreements are for the following sectors: agriculture, livestock and fisheries, public service, foreign affairs, trade, sports and culture.

“The cooperation between our countries is built on a solid foundation of shared values and principles – to foster sustained socio-economic development and transformation, a vibrant and united East African Community and an integrated and prosperous Africa,” said Kenyatta.

Ndayishimiye echoed the same sentiment with respect to Kenya.

“We are enjoying the ties between our two countries both in investments and trade. I recall the role Kenya played in peacekeeping in Burundi and the facilitation of trade through the port of Mombasa, and Kenyan investors already working in Burundi,” Ndayishimiye said during his visit.

But the meeting between the two leaders was more than just an occasion for an exchange of niceties.

John Ndege, a regional economist and analyst based in Nairobi, says Ndayishimiye’s visit to Kenya is an attempt to reset the balance of trade between the two.

“Kenya, and Burundi are trade partners but it has always been the case that there is no trade balance between the two countries, his visit will try to solve this challenge,” he says.

Currently, among the six member states, it is only Kenya, Uganda and Rwanda that do not charge fees for work permits for EAC nationals. Burundi, however, still charges Kenyans, a point that Ndege says should be addressed if trade is to improve.

State of EAC region

After assuming office as the chairperson of the EAC, Kenyatta promised to focus on strengthening relationships between the six member states (Burundi, Kenya, Rwanda, South Sudan, Uganda and Tanzania).

Noah Midamba, a professor of defence and foreign policy, says for some time now, Kenya has been seen as a reluctant leader in the region, something that Kenyatta is trying to deal with at the moment.

“This is a right strategic move to be involved, economically, politically and militarily and set direction for East Africa,” he says.

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