Pierre Nkurunziza’s Heat level: Chilly legacy after his death

  • + Burundi’s president died, leaving a divided country and a successor who may change foreign affairs.
  • + After 15 years in power, Nkurunziza’s support has been freezing as well as his international relations.
  • + Burundi’s presidential elections took place, designating Ndayishimiye as his successor.
Source: Reuters

Why is Nkurunziza’s heat level chilly?

Answer: Nkurunziza’s legacy is an internationally isolated country whose population is strongly divided. This may change with Ndayishimiye, who has opened the door to change.

The fifteen years period in which Nkurunziza was governing over the Burundian population came to an end. His legacy is a divided society – we have to bear in mind that Burundi, as its neighbour Rwanda, suffered several years from an ethnic civil war that led to a genocide. Nkurunziza ruled for three terms, being the last of them the most sanguine. During his last mandate, which could be considered as unconstitutional, several violent actions in order to keep his opponents quiet took place. 

On the 20th of May, Burundi’s next president was elected, after Nkurunziza made the announcement that he would not run for a fourth term. The chosen candidate was Evariste Ndayishimiye, who did not have Nkurunziza’s support, but who belongs to the same political party – CNDD-FDD. Since last week, Ndayishimiye is Burundi’s president, a man who has already met the African Union Chairperson and the East African Community (EAC) officials as the start of his overture towards international organisations.

While leaving Burundi’s presidency, Nkurunziza had done his job, and his influence on the country’s development will remain decisive. Indeed, the late president has retained several titles, including the Supreme Guide of Patriotism. However, on the 8th of June, Nkurunziza died, and with him went the control that could be exercised over Ndayishimiye and the future of Burundi. 

Before his death, the leader’s temperature had been changing. His regime is only democratic in appearance and, therefore, Nkurunziza could do what he wanted. International sanctions from the US and the EU were beginning to weigh on the country. In addition, there was widespread violence – plus corruption and extrajudicial killings– after Nkurunziza ran for a third term in 2015, against his own constitution. 

More than 400,000 refugees have since fled the country are compounded by the fragile situation of Burundi’s economy, which has neither international aid nor trading partners. Nkurunziza’s last move while alive was to expel four senior officials of the World Health Organization from the territory, after denying that COVID-19 would harm his country, as they were blessed with God’s grace. 

A situation that sooner or later was going to explode, and that announces that Burundi is a country to keep up with this 2020.

Who is changing Nkurunziza’s temperature? 

Answer: His own death is changing Nkurunziza’s temperature. But also, Burundi’s new president Ndayishimiye is going to change the country Nkurunziza left him.

Nkurunziza, in order to have no one questioning his authority, managed to keep Burundi isolated from the international community. Not only did he have toxic relations with Rwanda’s president Paul Kagame, as Nkurunziza accused him of the fail coup of 2015 and other attacks, but he also shunned agreements and meetings with the EAC and the UA, withdrew Burundi’s membership in the International Criminal Court, shut the U.N. Human Rights Office in 2019, and pushed donors like the EU to withhold their economic aid. 

He has left a country whose authority was him, and none could deny it if they want to keep living. Now that Ndayishimiye is going to rule, this would probably change. 

It is important to bear in mind that Ndayishimiye comes from the same political party as his predecessor, the CNDD-FDD. He is surrounded by the same generals that Nkurunziza was surrounded by. Also, the party’s youth organization, Imbonerakure, remains intact, with no accountability for its crimes. The fact that these structures remain means that Ndayishimiye will not have a large margin of action when it comes to printing his personal mark to his government. 

However, Ndayishimiye has already taken the first steps towards a new direction for the country, breaking with Nkurunziza’s legacy. During the last months, he has started approaching the UA and EAC officials. This is going to lead to a break with the isolationist regime Nkurunziza built in order to keep his power. 

Furthermore, Ndayishimiye’s election as Burundi’s president and his predecessor’s death led Paul Kagame to contact Burundi after five years of broken relations. In addition, Rwanda’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated his country’s desire “to improve the historical relationship that exists between the two brother countries” and sees Ndayishimiye’s election as an opportunity. 

That means that, in the foreign aspect, Burundi is going to change in the next months, once the new president starts his first term in office. Ndayishimiye was expected to take office in August, but finally he started his term last June 18th. Despite the above-mentioned limited scope for Ndayishimiye’s manoeuvre, change is coming. Nkurunziza’s control over policy has ended and, with it, Burundi’s isolation.

It is Ndayishimiye’s chance to stand as the man to unite Burundi, and leave his footprint. 

What was driving Nkurunziza? 

Answer: Son of the civil war between Hutus and Tutsis, Nkurunziza dreamt of a country whose people were united and considered himself as the one who could bring stability.

Pierre Nkurunziza began to mark the political life of Burundi in the 90s, being part of the Hutu side during the war. When he came to power in 2005, he promised hope to his people. Therefore, he began to build stability and coexistence in his country. He started by including an equitable distribution in his cabinet, both in terms of gender and ethnicity. 

However, during his second term in office, complaints from the population grew stronger, accusing him of corruption and systematic violence. 

It was during his third term of office – which was against the Arusha Agreement and the constitution when the worst problems for the country began. His self-conception as the saviour and unifier of Burundi led him to remain in power for this third term. Maintaining his warlike discourse, he accused his neighbour Rwanda of various attacks, and applied violent measures to anyone who opposed his leadership. 

Nkurunziza, whose religion was the evangelical, believed that he was the one chosen by God to lead his country, and any attack against himself was an attack against Burundi and God’s will. It was in several speeches where he declared these ties with God, even in order to fight coronavirus, he claimed that God would protect Burundi. This approach to religious conceptions of power can find its explanation in a bad wound -when he was part of the Hutu rebellion- that healed because of divine will, according to Nkurunziza. That justified and encouraged his isolationist movements. He threw out any institution that was against the government, leaving the country in the situation already described above. 

What drove Nkurunziza? His eagerness to remain the leader and reference of Burundi, even without occupying the position of president. The politician had made up the position of Supreme Guide to Patriotism, a role from which he planned to control his political successor. 

Now that he has passed away, after denying that COVID-19 could affect the blessed people of Burundi, his isolationist legacy is reeling. While the party structures will protect its ideology, a new leader will shape Burundi’s future.

What does this mean for you? 

Answer: The situation in Burundi seems to be the great forgotten one for the western media, however, it is a great event for the region.

Ndayishimiye has the opportunity to unblock the situation in his country at the international level, which will lead to a strengthening of regional institutions in the African continent. To begin with, the EAC will regain one of its members and will be able to boost the economic development of the region. In the meantime, the opening of the country to Rwanda is key, as this can mean the return of refugees to their homes, as well as increased trade. It seems that the country will finally be able to emerge from the hole of poverty that its isolation left behind, and recover the European Union’s development aid. 

This can be explained because Nkurunziza’s attitude towards human rights and accountability drove the EU to retire his economic aid. Furthermore, as Burundi’s former president didn’t trust any other leader in his region, specially Paul Kagame, trade between Burundi and other countries was frozen. If Ndayishimiye starts to open its borders to the international community, help would probably come back, and a better future may be expected. 

The bittersweet taste is left by Nkurunziza’s death without having been held accountable for his atrocities. Another dictator who will not be held accountable for the torture, killings and sexual violence that systematically occurred during his rule.

Claudia María Yáñez Sangil

Research and Analysis Intern