Pierre Nkurunziza, Burundi’s football-loving president and self-proclaimed pastor, has died at the age of 55. By all accounts this was death most cruel. He was soon to hand over power to his handpicked successor, Major General Evariste Ndayishimiye.
Ndayishimiye, the former army major, recently won a controversial election which was reaffirmed by the constitutional court only a few days ago. This would have been the first time in Burundi’s history that power was transferred peacefully from one leader to another, albeit from the same party.
So what does Nkurunziza’s passing mean for the transition process in Burundi? And to Burundi’s regional relationships?
When Burundians look back, some will remember their president as a man who laid the foundation for a belated political transition. Others will see his departure as good riddance. History will judge Nkurunziza as someone who brought unnecessary pain to a nation that had long suffered from political misrule, but who in death bequeathed it a golden opportunity for renewal.
Nkurunziza had been president of Burundi for the past 15 years. He came to power first as a parliamentary nominee in 2005, later winning two controversial popular elections.
He ruled with an iron fist, making few compromises. For example, his insistence in 2015 on changing the constitution to enable him to have a controversial third term in power plunged Burundi into civil unrest of near civil war proportions. Thousands died and many fled the country.
To many, Nkurunziza was a hardliner within his National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy party. He presided over wide-scale purges of opponents and the muffling of the press. He also oversaw the rise of the much dreaded Imbonerakure – militias that terrorised any real and perceived opponents.
His untimely passing, therefore, presents the nation of 11 million with an opportunity to chart a new path.
We could anchor Burundi’s political transition to Nkurunziza’s decision not to seek a fourth term of office, which he first signalled in 2015 and reiterated in 2018. Having muscled his way to a third term through the intimidation of judges of the constitutional court, and subsequently winning controversial elections, Nkurunziza must have understood the ramifications of his continued hold on power.
His decision to “step aside” was instrumental in tempering political opposition and potential violent challenge to the status quo. Handpicking a successor, like many African strongmen, ensured both change and continuity – actions borrowed from the playbook of neighbours such as the Democratic Republic of Congo and Angola.
It is highly unlikely, therefore, that transition in Burundi will dramatically deviate from the existing status quo, given the existence of entrenched interests, particularly the military and ruling party elites.
The fact that there’s an institutionalised dominant party will ensure ideological continuity, regime endurance and the strategic sequencing of transition or succession.
It is also crucial to appreciate that when authoritarian leaders die in office, more often than not regime elites coalesce rather than fragment. Regime elites are best served by ensuring the maintenance of the status quo.
In Burundi’s case this means rallying around Nkurunziza’s chosen successor, Ndayishimiye.
The sudden death of Nkurunziza is therefore unlikely to result in a fundamental change of direction.
Protecting the legacy
In handpicking the trusted party secretary, Nkurunziza ensured that his legacy wouldn’t be challenged or derailed by either the opposition or an outsider.
Nkurunziza had taken other steps to ensure that his influence on matters of the state continued uninterrupted. He had designated for himself the role of “supreme guide of patriotism”. This was no doubt designed to ensure a “subservient” successor president whose fortunes would have been at the behest of the ex-president.
The incoming president is considered to be more open-minded and less prone to violence than other generals. But the death of his predecessor doesn’t necessarily provide him with an open hand to do as he pleases, given the need to balance various competing elite interests within the party and the military.
The country’s new leader will also have to consider mending fences with its neighbours.
Burundi’s regional and international relations have ranged from frosty to toxic. Burundi blamed the failed coup attempt against Nkurunziza in 2015 on its northern neighbour, Rwanda. Bilateral relations and trust plunged to an all time low.
Rwanda saw Burundi as sympathetic to the FDLR rebels in the DRC fighting against the Rwanda government. In turn, Burundi accused its neighbour of actively supporting opponents of Burundi’s own regime. Many of those opponents found shelter in Rwanda. So did thousands of refugees.
Burundi took exception to this. Nkurunziza’s personal relationship with Rwandan leader Paul Kagame was, at best, frosty. His death presents the ideal opportunity to reset relations between Burundi and Rwanda.
Burundi under Nkurunziza was cast as a global pariah. International financial and economic support was all but frozen. Long accused of gross human rights violations, Burundi became hostile towards the international community. It purged national and international NGOs, and expelled the personnel of international institutions. The World Health Organisation’s country representative was the most recent casualty.
President Ndayishimiye now has the opportunity to be his own man, and chart a different course for Burundi. The hope is that it will be one of prosperity, and peace and good neighbourliness.