A new Burundi or just a new face?
This has been an open subject in Burundi since President Evariste Ndayishimiye seized office two years ago, ending years of isolationism with much fanfare but failing to improve the country’s poor record on human rights violations.
After the chaotic and murderous administration of his predecessor, who started a crackdown on political opponents in 2015, killing 1,200 people and making Burundi a worldwide pariah, his victory in May 2020 gave hope.
Ndayishimiye’s “Burundi now has a breath of fresh air. This is something he should be proud of. He gives the sense of genuine sincerity in his desire to better things, “said one diplomat in the country’s economic hub, Bujumbura.
Ndayishimiye was chosen by the governing party to continue under the tutelage of former President Pierre Nkurunziza, who refused to run again but maintained a cult-like character as Burundi’s “supreme guide.”
However, Nkurunziza died tragically barely a month after the election, and the new leader proceeded to set a different route.
Ndayishimiye made headlines when he declared the coronavirus pandemic “Burundians’ biggest adversary,” starkly contradicting Nkurunziza, who disputed the severity of Covid-19 and said God had saved his nation from the sickness.
Whereas Nkurunziza had locked down his nation, arguing with neighbors, dismissing diplomats and foreign media, and blacklisting UN investigators, Ndayishimiye traveled overseas, gradually re-establishing his country’s presence.
He addressed the UN General Assembly, with whom he maintained tense ties, attended an EU-Africa conference in Brussels, and paid diplomatic trips to neighbors and farther afield, including Dubai.
“Internationally, it is evident that these are significant improvements. Burundi is recovering its position on the world stage after years of isolation “added another official, who also requested anonymity.
The United States and the European Union restarted funding to the landlocked country of 12 million people earlier this year after lifting sanctions imposed in reaction to Nkurunziza’s brutal purge of dissidents.
Civil society organizations have returned, the BBC is permitted to broadcast again, and the European Union, Burundi’s biggest foreign donor, has praised efforts to combat corruption.
“We see Ndayishimiye pushing things cautiously, step by step,” Julien Nimubona, a political science lecturer at the University of Burundi, said.
“He wants to go farther but is met with fierce opposition.”
In Burundi, this opposition is known as “the generals,” a cabal of military officers who, according to observers, control the true levers of power.
These generals, formed underground when the governing party was a Hutu rebel force, observers believe, outnumber Ndayishimiye, who has few recognized sympathizers.
During a speech in 2021, the president referred to his seclusion.
“Some say I’ll die of tiredness if I don’t flush out wrongdoing from top to bottom. (However,) how do you expect me to do so when I haven’t found anyone to assist me among my staff?”
Analysts dispute Ndayishimiye’s willingness to disrupt the current quo, pointing out that he was an army commander and a high-ranking governing party official.
Critics, notably human rights campaigners, are unimpressed.
Many rejected the big powers’ reconciliation, claiming that egregious breaches by state actors in Burundi had persisted under Ndayishimiye, and that the old system was still alive and well.
Human Rights Watch highlighted politically motivated killings and kidnappings by police and state-backed youth groups in May, while a UN probe last year labeled Burundi’s rights situation as “disastrous.”
“There are certain areas where no development has been made. Torture, abductions, and forced disappearances to come to mind “Burundi Human Rights Initiative’s Carina Tertsakian condemned the move to withdraw sanctions.
Analysts believe Burundi is a one-party state, with opposition groups stifled even if legally authorized.
Civil society does exist, but it is self-censored due to fear.
“Many civil society groups, particularly those on the ground, avoid working on sensitive governance and human rights problems,” said Faustin Ndikumana, president of PARCEM, a non-governmental organization focusing on good governance.
Its fortunes have remained mixed under Ndayishimiye: on the one side, they are actively engaged by the administration, but on the other, their press briefings are disrupted by police.
“After Nkurunziza, we’re in a decompression period, but it doesn’t affect the regime’s DNA,” said Thierry Vircoulon, a Central African expert at the French Institute of International Relations.
“Power stays the same, i.e. inherently authoritarian.”