In 2015, Burundi lurched into its worst economic and political crisis since the end of its 12-year civil war in 2005. This was triggered after former President, Pierre Nkurunziza, successfully extended his tenure in office. Last month, Burundi finally got a new president. Evariste Ndayishimiye, 52, will be leading a country that is greatly sequestered from her East African neighbours, facing multiple economic sanctions and cut off by foreign donors and the international community.
Mr Ndayishimiye was sworn in last month after 15 years of Pierre Nkurunziza’s rule. He was declared president-elect after a keenly contested election in May, and sworn in after Mr Nkurunziza, died at age 55 of what the government disclosed to be ‘heart failure’, a few days after his wife was flown to Nairobi for treatment of COVID-19.
As flag-bearer of the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD–FDD), Ndayishimiye clinched 68.72% of votes over his rival, Agathon Rwasa, of the National Freedom Council (CNL), who obtained 24.19% of votes from an election which saw an 87.7% voter turnout. Following the sudden death of Mr Nkurunziza, Burundi’s Constitutional Court ruled that Mr Ndayishimiye be sworn into office two months earlier than was expected. There were doubts as to when Mr Ndayishimiye was to be inaugurated into office as the legal procedure was to have the speaker of parliament serve as interim president. The court, in reference to the Constitution, ruled that the May election, which produced a president-elect, made the need for an interim president redundant.
Evariste Ndayishimiye served the former President as minister of interior and security and led the department of military affairs in the President’s Office. He became known as an influential figure and close ally to Mr Nkurunziza. Popularly known by his alias ‘Neva’, Ndayishimiye, an army general and former rebel combatant of the CNDD-FDD, is said to have been selected by the elites of the governing party and military power brokers who wanted someone with military experience to lead the country. Critics, according to the BBC, have raised concerns that Mr Ndayishimiye is likely to be confronted with the challenge of trying to please the elites who put him in power and the people he has sworn to serve.
Mr Ndayishimiye is seen by friends and critics as a many-faced man. To friends, he is considered open-minded and jovial. To critics, he has not shown a true departure from his former boss. In a presidential campaign, he is noted to have said, “We will swallow our dark past which does not deserve to be our prison.” He further assured his supporters that he would do all it takes to address the causes of the violence that has ravaged the country in the past. However, there appears to be a dissonance between this posture and his other public comments. In his first speech after being sworn into office, President Ndayishimiye paid homage to his predecessor and announced his resolve to follow in his path. He also berated the international community for interfering in Burundi’s politics. Further threatening to alienate an already distant international community.
Conflicts & Human rights violations: President Ndayishimiye would have to address the human right violations carried out by the country’s security services and the infamous Imbonerakur group, a youth arm of the ruling CNDD-FDD party, which has been accused of killings and human right abuses. With his inauguration being the first peaceful transition of power in Burundi, Ndayishimiye would be expected to walk the path of reconciling warring ethnic groups. After taking office, Mr Ndayishimiye promised that his 7-year tenure as president will be one that respects human rights. In the recent past, armed groups from Burundi have been accused of being active participants in violence in eastern DRC and attacking Rwandan troops. Rwanda, a neighbour to Burundi, have accused it of being a “sanctuary” for armed militia which disturb the peace of countries in the region. With these growing tensions, President Ndayishimiye must take a departure from his predecessor and try to mend fences with neighbouring nations, which are no stranger to armed conflicts within the last two decades.
Embracing the international community: Another daunting task ahead of the new president is towing the path of international diplomacy. Burundi has been isolated for such a long time following a spate of international sanctions. For a country deeply dependent on foreign aid, these sanctions have had great effects on the lives of its citizens. Under the former president, Nkurunziza, the UN Human Rights office in Burundi was shut down. It became the first country to withdraw its membership from the International Criminal Court, dismissing the criticisms of the international community including its neighbouring East African states. Burundi’s isolation was evident in the inauguration of Ndayishimiye which did not have any heads of state present. Given the peculiarity of the current global health crisis, the new president would need to create room for the WHO to assist the country in tackling cases of COVID-19, which the government had continuously denied was within the country’s border.
The economy: An obvious and unnerving problem Ndayishimiye is confronted with is the Burundian economy. Since 2015, according to the UN, harsh economic conditions as well political instability has made more than 330,000 Burundians flee the country to neighbouring Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The country, which is heavily reliant on agriculture, has most of its citizens in poverty. With a dwindling economy with a GDP a little above $3 billion and no aid from the international community, the new president would have to think of very creative ways to address the issue of poverty in his country.
Burundi’s per capita income has seen a steady decline since 2014 | Source: tradingeconomics.com
According to the US State Department, much of the US aid to Burundi has come through the USAID with the majority focused on improving healthcare delivery in the east-central African nation. As of 2019 and 2020, the US had provided over $45 million in emergency humanitarian assistance for the country, which was also deployed to increase private sector-led economic growth with an emphasis on agriculture. The US assistance to Burundi continues even though other forms of funding such as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) have been halted since 2015.
Verdict: In all its struggles, with a new man at the helm of leadership, Burundi has a chance to open itself up to the international community and re-establish cooperation with other members of the region. Evariste Ndayishimiye must keep true to his promise of respecting human rights and remain open to criticism from the opposition.