03 August 2020: In this article, our local peacebuilding expert from Burundi* reflects on how the recent change in leadership, and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, are impacting peacebuilders, and what challenges await the new leader.

*The author is a peacebuilder from Burundi who wishes to remain anonymous due to the security situation in the country.

This article forms part of the quarterly Peace Dispatch series – a collection of articles sharing recent insights and analysis on conflict and peacebuilding from a network of local peacebuilding experts around the world. Explore other editions here.

While the world has been living under quarantine and was busy taking drastic measures against COVID-19, Burundi turned the page on President Pierre Nkurunziza’s long and tumultuous rule with recent presidential elections held on May 20th. Indeed, the election of Evariste Ndayishimiye into the highest office has raised the hopes of Burundians who wish to see real change and an opening of political, civic and media space after years of instability and repression. Moreover, the sudden passing of the former president, who had only recently been named the ‘Supreme Guide of Patriotism’, was an unexpected turn of events that raised important questions about where Burundi is heading. Would Ndayishimiye’s administration take important steps to signal a positive change, or would he simply continue the hard-line approach taken by his late predecessor?

The election of Evariste Ndayishimiye into the highest office has raised the hopes of Burundians who wish to see real change and an opening of political, civic and media space after years of instability and repression

Unfortunately, the new President has already indicated which approach he’s likely taking with the nomination of his administration’s cabinet. By tapping Chief Police Commissioner Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni as his Prime Minister and General Gervais Ndirakobuca as the Minister of the Interior and Public Security – key figures from the previous regime who are accused of serious human rights violations and under international sanctions – the new President is seemingly aligning with hardliners from the Nkurunziza era, continuing the country’s cumulative push towards the militarisation of power. According to human rights defenders, both Bunyoni and Ndirakobuca have been at the centre of repression against opponents to the regime since 2015.

Though Ndayishimiye claimed a crushing victory, the presidential elections were marked by numerous irregularities as well as acts of intimidation and violence. Electoral observers from the Catholic Church provided a disturbing assessment of the electoral process, highlighting alarming irregularities including restrictions exerted on certain political operators, instances of ballot stuffing and multiple voting, the exclusion of opposition and independent observers, as well as intimidation and restrictions exerted on voters by certain administrative officials. The main opposition candidate who had lodged a complaint with the Constitutional Court finally took note of the court’s decision confirming Ndayishimiye’s victory and announced that his party will not make any further appeals.

What key challenges await?

Bringing Burundians together through dialogue and opening up political space

Uniting the country and encouraging dialogue will be the main challenge for President Ndayishimiye. Although he announced in his inaugural speech his intention to listen to all  Burundians whether in Burundi or abroad, doubts remain that this will actually happen. His speech remained vague, even contradictory at times, as he accused opponents of being "colonialist supporters." Will he be able to transcend the divisions within his party and rally Burundians of all backgrounds around the same table in order to heal the wounds and divisions following the political crisis instigated by his predecessor? There is no indication at the moment that he will deliver on this promise, but the coming months will serve as a test of his ability to reconcile all Burundians and establish political governance based on dialogue, tolerance and diversity.

Uniting the country and encouraging dialogue will be the main challenge for President Ndayishimiye

Rethinking the ‘anti-COVID-19’strategy

So far, Burundi remains strongly criticized for its reckless management of the pandemic. When the first cases were reported in March, the government tried to minimise the magnitude and severity of the coronavirus. Public, religious, sporting and even electoral rallies continued as usual, with the only preventive measure being washing hands. During political rallies, the late President Nkurunziza, like other leaders in the country, declared that God was protecting the country and its people from the virus. In mid-May, the government expelled four WHO officials who had criticised the weakness of the government's response plan. Furthermore, the absence of accurate information on the spread of COVID-19 is fuelling fear and rumours, creating panic among the population and within the health system. The new government must not only increase transparency and improve communication around the pandemic, but also work with various national and international structures to step up testing and treatment of confirmed cases. As of July 23rd, the government officially acknowledged that 328 people had tested positive for the virus, one of whom died. According to several health professionals speaking anonymously for fear of reprisals, these figures are likely to have been largely underestimated.

The new government must not only increase transparency and improve communication around the pandemic, but also work with various national and international structures to step up testing and treatment of confirmed cases

Turning the page on Nkurunziza’srule and loosening the generals' grip on power

Before Nkurunziza's passing, several analysts feared a scenario where the former head of state would seek to overshadow the newly elected official and maintain control. Though this scenario has not happened, it is clear that the Ndayishimiye administration is a continuity of the previous regime. His first decisions as President have confirmed this, especially the appointment of generals from the ruling CNDD-FDD party (National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy) to key positions. Ndayishimiye has not only surrounded himself with known human rights abusers, but also constantly expresses praise for the late President and vows to continue his work. Nkurunziza's legacy, based on intolerance, repression and favouritism, has left a strong imprint in the new administration’s approach.

Addressing the dire socio-economic situation

According to the World Bank, Burundi’s poverty rate rose from 65% to 75% of the population between 2005 and 2020. Over the same period, GDP per capita has fallen sharply and is likely to be further affected by the global health crisis. The country is struggling to diversify its sources of foreign exchange earnings and is still largely dependent on agriculture and the export of coffee and tea. Furthermore, 7 million Burundians are facing severe food insecurity. Ndayishimiye inherits a highly fragile socio-economic situation, largely due to the isolation the country has suffered since the 2015 crisis. Improving the daily lives of its citizens has to be a major priority for the new President, without forgetting the need to repatriate more than 333,000 refugees who are scattered across neighbouring countries.

Ndayishimiye inherits a highly fragile socio-economic situation, largely due to the isolation the country has suffered since the 2015 crisis

Reviving diplomatic relations in the region and abroad

Re-establishing certain diplomatic relations which have cooled in recent years is another challenge that the new President will have to face. Improving ties with neighbouring Rwanda – regularly accused of hosting government opponents – would be a good place to start, followed by renewed engagement with the African Union. More importantly, it will be vital to re-establish relations with the United Nations, who have continued to condemn the abuses of Burundi’s Imbonerakure militia, and call for the restoration of fundamental freedoms, civil society and political space, as well as abandoning arrest warrants against political opponents. The new government will also have to reconnect with the country's main donors, including the European Union, which has suspended critical financial support. If he succeeds, the new President will gradually break away from the diplomatic isolation that has been plunged the country into turmoil over the past 5 years.

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