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Danger: Burundi’s new president

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Two glaring absences marked the swearing-in ceremony of Burundi’s new president, retired army general Évariste Ndayishimiye. The first was understandable. The second, not so much.

The first absentee was the widow of former president Pierre Nkurunziza. The inauguration occurred while Denise Nkurunziza was still mourning her husband. The second was the opposition leader and runner-up in last month’s presidential poll, Agathon Rwasa.

It has been speculated that Rwasa, who still serves as the vice-president of the National Assembly, was not invited to Ndayishimiye’s June 18 festivities. This is also what Rwasa’s party seemed to imply when it asked on Twitter whether other losing presidential candidates had received formal invitations.

The difference between Rwasa and those other presidential candidates, most of whom barely registered at the ballot box, is that while they had congratulated Ndayishimiye, Rwasa had challenged the official results in court, alleging serious irregularities. (The Conference of Catholic Bishops documented similar irregularities and the election commission had to pull preliminary results because they did not add up.)

Rwasa, having exhausted the sole legal appeal available, respected the Constitutional Court’s decision that granted the presidency to Ndayishimiye. But he maintains the win was fraudulent.

Rwasa’s position irked Ndayi-shimiye, who has previously accused his leading political opponent of being a tool of colonialists.

These terms, “colonialists” or “tools of colonialists”, are familiar terms in recent Burundian politics. Ndayishimiye’s party has used them to target those who, in the ruling party’s eyes, have committed the highest forms of treason against the country. Their version of treason includes peaceful protests.

Ndayishimiye’s inaugural speech heavily featured those despised colonialists. The new president surmised that most of the political opposition is made up of colonialists’ tools. He specifically named two opposition coalitions — the Alliance of Democrats for Change formed in 2010 and the National Council for Compliance with the Arusha Agreement in 2015 — as colonialists’ vassals. Those specific coalitions have, at times, included nearly all Burundian opposition parties.

It is therefore not surprising that the new president looks forward to a Burundi free of political opposition. “Opposition should disappear in Burundian political lexicon,” Ndayishimiye argued in his speech. “What is a political party that doesn’t agree with the government? What other government does it serve?” he asked. Clearly, in his mind, to be a political opponent, one must be serving a foreign government, ergo betraying his country. (In Kirundi, “opposition” translates into “those who do not agree with or speak the same language as the government”.)

The long list of Ndayishimiye’s colonialists’ “useful idiots” include civil society organisations and those who protested against Nkurunziza’s controversial third term. Hundreds of thousands of those remain exiled following the Nkurunziza regime’s bloody repression.

Ndayishimiye’s views are dangerous and antithetical to pluralistic political competition in a supposedly democratic state. Freedom House’s 2020 Freedom in the World Report ranks Burundi as “not free”, with a pitiful 14 points out of a possible 100. 

Two days before Ndayishimiye’s inauguration, a group of ruling party youth — the notorious Imbonerakure — tied the legs and hands of a widow and threw her in her tiny bathroom while they demolished her home. Her sin was her refusal to cede her plot of land to a ruling party dignitary who works in the senate.

These Imbonerakure performed this violent act swiftly and efficiently because they have practised on opposition supporters, particularly Rwasa’s supporters, over the years and throughout the country with impunity. This week, the Burundi Human Rights Initiative launched a new series, The Deadly Price of Opposition, which documents the brutality that Imbonerakure exacted on opposition members in the lead-up to last month’s poll. 

It is in this context of protracted political violence that Ndayishimiye’s labelling of opposition members, civil society and all of those who did not support Nkurunziza’s third term as serving colonialists’ interests is dangerous. By othering a large segment of Burundians, Ndayishimiye signals to the Imbonerakure that their acts of violence toward “colonialists’ tools” are state-sanctioned or, at minimum, justified. Ndayishimiye’s words have not reassured the refugees who had hoped for relief under a new leader. 

He needed to address reforms in at least three instruments of repression; the Imbonerakure, the intelligence services and the politicised judiciary. None of this happened. 

To those who had hoped Ndayishimiye would release journalists and human rights defenders, he responded that “those who have been sentenced must serve their sentences”. 

A day before the swearing-in ceremony, Paul-Simon Handy at the South Africa-based Institute for Security Studies asked whether Ndayishimiye could “return Burundi to a more conciliatory course” after the divisive Nkurunziza years. He observed that “though nicknamed Umuhuza [Unifier] during the armed struggle, Nkurunziza was never able to do the same in politics”.

Judging by the opening salvo, it seems Ndayimishe might be following in his predecessor’s footsteps. Many had given him the benefit of the doubt, until he appointed Alain Guillaume Bunyoni, a police general under United States sanctions for human rights violations, to the post of prime minister. But his inaugural speech was already problematic.

Ndayishimiye has a long list of economic projects. This is laudable. But should he choose to persist on the same violent and divisive politics that failed many of his predecessors, his economic plan won’t flourish either. Seven years have just begun. He has time to reset Burundi’s course for the better.

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