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Burundi: Charm Offensive or Real Change?
Burundi: Charm Offensive or Real Change?
People walk in a street in Bujumbura, Burundi, 14 May 2015. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic
Commentary / Africa

Burundi’s Crisis Not over Yet

Crisis Group Central Africa Project Director Thierry Vircoulon updates the unfolding developments in Burundi.

A 13 May 2015 coup attempt in Burundi led by Major-General Godefroid Niyombare collapsed after 48 hours. But the fact that key military units remained loyal to President Pierre Nkurunziza has not solved the crisis over his push to win a third five-year term in power. 

Crisis Group: What happened during the 13 May coup attempt? What do you understand about the situation on the ground? 

Thierry Vircoulon: The coup leaders took advantage of the fact that President Nkurunziza had travelled on 13 May to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, for a summit of the East African Community (EAC). Ironically, the special meeting had been convened by regional heads of state to discuss the crisis in Burundi after three weeks of street protests in the capital city against Nkurunziza’s candidacy for the next election.

During the coup, there were at first signs of joy in the centre of Bujumbura, with people dancing and fraternising with military forces on the street. But the demonstrators did not take over the city centre, and the coup plotters were unable to rally enough military units behind them. When clashes between army rebels and loyalists started – and the only fighting seems to have been between different parts of the army – people melted away back home. General Niyombare’s rebellion also failed to win over public support from Burundi’s political opposition, even though they share the aim to prevent an unconstitutional third term for President Nkurunziza.

President Nkurunziza was able to return to the country. The coup is over. The coup-makers lost, and some of them have surrendered.

Who was behind the Burundi coup?

The coup was staged by Major General Godefroid Niyombare, a former army chief of staff, a former ambassador to Kenya and a former intelligence service head. General Niyombare is from the ruling party’s security elite who has become dissatisfied with President Nkurunziza’s rule. He is not the only disgruntled general, but is the most visible of them. Niyombare was dismissed by the president in February 2015 after he sent a personal note advising him not to run for a third presidential term. The coup plotters were basically a faction in the security services, mostly very much from within the ruling party’s inner circle.

In his statement justifying the coup, General Godefroid Niyombare claimed to be acting to save the Arusha agreement. Had it really broken down? Why is it important to preserve?

The Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi, signed in 2000, eventually ended a long, ethnically charged civil war in 2005. Nkurunziza and the ruling elite have blocked the implementation of key provisions of the agreement – for instance, a transitional justice process – and have badly managed much needed land reform. They have also created a superficial opposition de façade in order to preserve the appearance of institutionalised power sharing. In fact, they have made no secret of their dislike for the Arusha peace agreement, nor of their intention to amend one of its principal achievements, the constitution. The constitution refers to the Arusha agreement, provides for a two-term limit for the president and makes a two-thirds parliamentary majority compulsory to pass a law. Nkurunziza’s attempt to change the constitution in 2014 failed by only one vote.

The Arusha agreement is widely considered to be the foundation for peace in Burundi. It created the present power-sharing system, which is seen by most Burundians as the best available, able to accommodate the country’s various political interests and making peaceful coexistence possible after a very long civil war that cost 300,000 lives.

What grievances motivate the protestors over the past month?

The demonstrators’ principal grievance – like that of the coup plotters – has been that President Nkurunziza was defying the constitution to run for a third term in the 26 June elections. On Wednesday morning, just before the attempted coup, even the Catholic Church had issued a statement appealing for him to drop this divisive ambition.

The problem is not just political. More than 100,000 Burundians have fled the country, fearing violence if Nkurunziza insists on this course of action. They are worried by increasing authoritarianism that marked the president’s second mandate, by the lack of social services and economic development, as well as by rising corruption.

How do the events of the week fit into the pattern of Burundi’s politics and civilian-military relations?

Burundi’s history has been marked by several bloodless military coups. In 1976, President Jean-Baptiste Bagaza took power in a bloodless coup but was himself the victim of another coup while he was in Canada in 1987. President Pierre Buyoya organised two coups, and after each stayed in power for several years (1987-1993 and 1996-2003).

How is Africa reacting?

Most African countries have waited to see how the situation plays out before offering a formal reaction. However, East African leaders condemned the coup after their 13 May summit. The attempted coup is principally an internal matter, the latest example on the continent of how any attempt by leaders to extend their mandates can trigger large and prolonged popular demonstrations and crises.

What is the danger now?

The Burundi crisis is not over with the failure of the coup. Many Burundians are scared and continue to leave the country as fast as they can.

As for those who supported the coup, the president has said that the soldiers who surrender will be forgiven and this should happen. However, past experience in Burundi raises serious concerns regarding an escalation of repression and the fate of those of who have surrendered.

Theoretically, legislative and municipal elections are scheduled for 26 May and the presidential election for 26 June. The president wishes to organise the elections as soon as possible but attempting to do so will only contribute to worsening the situation. The holding of acceptably free and fair elections is now impossible. The spokesperson of the opposition has called for the resumption of street protests this morning and street barricades have reappeared in the Musaga district of Bujumbura.

What should President Nkurunziza and the international community be saying and doing?

The first priority is to ensure that the aftermath of the coup attempt passes with as little new bloodshed as possible. If international mediators can do so, they should supervise the surrender of the coup-plotters and ensure that they are not executed.

President Nkurunziza should acknowledge that the country is in trouble and unity needs to be restored. He should not press for the elections to happen as long as political conditions for peaceful polls are not in place and the Burundian population does not feel safe. Burundi is not the success story it has been widely depicted as being, and must come to grips with its underlying problems. After this crisis and given the fast flow of refugees, this cannot be business as usual.

To put in place the right political conditions for peaceful elections, a roundtable of the Burundian political actors should be quickly convened. As soon as possible, the UN, the East African Community (EAC), the European Union and the African Union should send their representatives to facilitate the resumption of dialogue between the opposition and the government.

International actors should also demand the release of the many people arrested for taking part in the mounting demonstrations of the past weeks.

Evariste Ndayishimiye, Burundi's elected President from the ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy - Forces for the Defense of Democracy, attends the swearing-in ceremony at Ingoma stadium in Gitega, Burundi, on 18 June 2020. ONESPHORE NIBIGIRA / AFP
Q&A / Africa

Burundi: Charm Offensive or Real Change?

In his year in office, Burundian President Evariste Ndayishimiye has shown an appetite for reform and re-engagement with international partners. In this Q &A, Crisis Group experts assess whether ruling-party hardliners will hold the country back from turning a corner.

A year ago, Ndayishimiye took office only days after the unexpected death of his predecessor Pierre Nkurunziza. Does the new president represent continuity or change?

Elected in May 2020, President Evariste Ndayishimiye assumed power over a deeply troubled country. He took the reins from his late predecessor Pierre Nkurunziza, who had led Burundi into a protracted crisis over his fifteen years in office and had died shortly after Ndayishimiye’s election.

The country is still reeling from the former president’s successful bid to stay on for a third term in office in 2015. Many saw Nkurunziza’s manoeuvre then as contrary to the 2000 Arusha Accords, which brought an end to a brutal civil war between the ethnic Tutsi minority that had ruled for decades and the Hutu majority. These machinations led in 2015 to street protests, a failed coup attempt, a crackdown and the exodus of over 400,000 people.

After winning flawed elections that year, Nkurunziza stepped up crackdowns on the media, opposition and civil society groups, and increasingly insisted on outlandish displays of public devotion: the ruling party formally referred to him as a “visionary” and the “supreme guide for patriotism”. Donors including the European Union (EU), concerned by mounting rights abuses, cut direct budget support to Burundi. As investor confidence tanked and standards of living plummeted, the ruling party’s Imbonerakure youth militia, key to Nkurunziza’s machinery of repression, began collecting forced financial contributions from the exhausted citizenry. Burundi’s relationship with neighbouring Rwanda also nosedived. Nkurunziza accused his counterpart Paul Kagame of supporting proxy armed groups against Burundi, and vice versa.

While Ndayishimiye’s rise to power marked the end of Nkurunziza’s personality cult, the new president will still have to placate powerful factions in the ruling Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie – Forces pour la défense de la démocratie (CNDD-FDD), which started its life as a Hutu rebel group before turning into a political organisation in 2003. The CNDD-FDD’s selection of Ndayishimiye, who had previously held various government positions as well as the post of party secretary-general, reveals much about where power truly lies in the party. At first, it appeared that Nkurunziza was pushing for his ally Pascal Nyabenda, the former president of the National Assembly, to succeed him. It was only after intense lobbying by top generals that Ndayishimiye, himself a former senior army officer, finally won the candidacy. Having risen to power largely at the behest of powerful party security chiefs to whom he now owes his presidency, he will be under pressure to ensure they remain happy with him.

Indeed, after securing electoral victory for the CNDD-FDD, which now holds a majority in both the National Assembly (86 0f 123 seats) and the Senate (34 of 39 seats), Ndayishimiye has appointed generals and security hardliners to top positions. His fifteen-member cabinet includes Prime Minister Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni and Interior Minister Gervais Ndirakobuca, who are both under EU and U.S. sanctions for their role in crackdowns during the 2015 crisis.

Even with a majority in parliament, repression remains a key tool for governing Burundi.

Even with a majority in parliament, repression remains a key tool for governing Burundi. According to Human Rights Watch and the UN Commission of Inquiry on Burundi, the Imbonerakure and the intelligence services continue to commit human rights violations, cracking down on civilians and opposition members, though to a lesser extent than prior to the elections. State institutions target for abuse specific groups such as members of the Congrès national pour la liberté (CNL) opposition party, young Tutsis and members of the army’s old guard, mainly Tutsi, whom the CNDD-FDD sees as a security threat. The government is also stepping up its efforts to track down and punish those involved in the 2015 failed coup.

What reforms has the new president been keen to push?

Despite government repression, Ndayishimiye is trying to go on a charm offensive with the media and some civil society groups. To demonstrate his bona fides, he has taken some modest positive steps to reverse past harms. To begin with, authorities have released four jailed journalists who work for Iwacu, one of Burundi’s few remaining independent media outlets, following a presidential pardon in December 2020. They had been detained since October 2019 while reporting on clashes between security forces and an armed group in Bubanza province. While the journalists’ release has moved these cases in the right direction, rights organisations say it is not enough, arguing that authorities have yet to reverse the unjust convictions in the courts.

The government has also opened up more media space. In January, authorities reopened negotiations with national and international media outlets. They cleared local radio station Bonesha FM for operations in February 2021 after forcing it to close in 2015, and did the same for the BBC, whose license was revoked in 2019, in June. In April, the government also lifted sanctions against Parcem, which was one of the last human rights advocacy groups operating in Burundi until its suspension in June 2019.

Ndayishimiye has meanwhile tried to demonstrate that he is serious about improving governance and tackling corruption, albeit with mixed results. When installing his new cabinet, he warned his ministers he could easily replace them if they failed to perform adequately and that he would not tolerate people “diverting a single cent from the budget planned to improve the well-being of Burundians”. He also gave members of his government three weeks to declare their assets to the public. He later backtracked, however, reportedly under CNDD-FDD pressure, stating that senior state officials and public officials will not be forced to comply. The arrest of Commerce Minister Immaculée Ndabaneze for alleged embezzlement in May was also short-lived, as she was quickly released.

After years of no progress at all, even modest reform efforts are welcome.

After years of no progress at all, even modest reform efforts are welcome, although diplomats differ on how meaningful the steps Ndayishimiye has taken will prove to be. While one diplomat told Crisis Group that this administration and its predecessor are like “night and day”, others suggested that anti-corruption measures could be “political window dressing” and thus far do not indicate a commitment to comprehensive reform. Similarly, these sceptics tend to play down the arrests and convictions of a small number of police officers and Imbonerakure on criminal charges given that security force and militia repression and rights abuses reportedly still continue, even if at lower levels.

The president has also come out with a national strategy to handle the COVID-19 outbreak, which Nkurunziza had stated would be neutralised by God. Right after assuming office, Ndayishimiye began a national campaign against the virus’s spread, establishing a committee to sensitise the population about what preventive measures they could take while the government stepped up a national testing campaign. The country has also normalised relations with the World Health Organization (WHO), after expelling its representatives in May 2020, allowing the resumption of aid. Nevertheless, Burundi asked not to be included on the list to receive vaccines under the COVAX initiative pending their final WHO certification, and the government has repeatedly said acquiring doses is not a priority due to their elevated cost.

On foreign policy, Ndayishimiye has taken steps to re-engage Burundi’s partners. The new president has been keen to deliver on electoral promises of repairing relations with the country’ neighbours and international donors. He is acutely aware that the country’s shattered economy could benefit from better trading relationships with regional partners and direct financial support from influential donors, such as the EU. Since assuming office, he has visited eight countries on the continent, starting with Burundi’s key regional ally Tanzania and including Egypt, Kenya and Uganda. Foreign Minister Albert Shingiro, Burundi's former representative to the UN and previously an apologist for Nkurunziza’s isolationist foreign policy, has been instructed by Ndayishimiye to lead Burundi’s diplomatic offensive outside the continent. He also conducted a European tour in April and May, visiting Brussels at the invitation of the EU, France and Switzerland.

How have international and regional partners reacted to these developments?

Ndayishimiye’s domestic policies and diplomacy have won him gains in the halls of multilateral organisations.

Ndayishimiye’s domestic policies and diplomacy have won him gains in the halls of multilateral organisations. The Organisation Internationale de la Francophonie accepted Burundi back as a full member in November 2020 after suspending it following the 2015 political crisis. In December, the UN Security Council officially removed the country from its agenda. In February, the East African Community heads of state chose Ndayishimiye as rapporteur for the 2021-2022 term and as next chairman for 2022-2023. Even more significant were the closure of the African Union Human Rights Observers and Military Experts Mission as well as the Office of the UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy in May, both established to monitor the situation in the country and find a way to end the violence. The special envoy’s office closed at the Burundian authorities’ request, stating that “in light of the country's progress in terms of peace and security, only UN presence of socio-economic nature is needed to support Burundi in its development efforts”.

Influential donors, in particular the EU, are also striking a different tone toward Burundi. In December 2020, the EU ambassador in Bujumbura stated that “Ndayishimiye’s new policy of openness constitutes a solid basis for the resumption of good cooperation”. In June, after only six months of talks between the Burundian authorities and the EU, the latter announced it would be willing to revoke its measure suspending financial aid, if and when Bujumbura makes certain additional reforms. But diplomats tell Crisis Group that the EU also decided to change its approach because the suspension of direct budgetary support and the application of sanctions against Burundian officials during Nkurunziza’s rule had not led to an improvement of the country’s situation. In fact, their governments worried that these measures may have simply provoked the authorites to turn to other partners, such as China, Russia and Turkey, thereby diluting Western influence further.

Relations with Rwanda have also started to improve, with important implications for regional security. When in office, Nkurunziza had openly accused Kigali of supporting the Burundian rebel group RED-Tabara, active in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and reportedly led by a Tutsi opponent of the Hutu-dominated Burundian regime. Rwanda had denied this allegation and in contrast stated that Burundi was supporting the Forces démocratiques de libération du Rwanda (FDLR), a remnant of the Rwandan Hutu militia involved in the 1994 genocide, and also active in eastern Congo. The two presidents have yet to meet in person, but working-level meetings between government officials from the two countries are taking place. Greater cooperation between Rwandan and Burundian intelligence officials has also led to a de-escalation in tensions despite skirmishes involving armed groups on the border. Rwandan authorities have arrested at least nineteen RED-Tabara rebels, while Burundi’s government has promised to fight the FDLR.

Tensions persist, however, over Burundi’s request to hand over those responsible for the coup attempt in 2015 who found refuge in Rwanda. Kigali has so far refused but appeared sensitive to Bujumbura’s demands in March when three Burundian opposition radio stations operating from the Rwandan capital had to suspend their broadcasts.

What are the main risks and challenges moving forward?

A key challenge for partners and putative partners looking to see whether Burundi really is turning a corner is that international monitoring capacity has diminished and will continue to do so. After the closure of both the UN special envoy’s office and the African Union mission, the UN Commission of Inquiry is the only remaining internationally mandated body active in the country monitoring human rights abuses and the risk of further conflict. While briefing the UN Human Rights Council in March, the Commission stated that the situation is still “too complex and uncertain to be referred to as genuine improvement”. But despite the continued need for its analysis, its mandate will likely not be renewed in September. As a result, the responsibility to keep on top of the human rights and security situations in the country will be left in the hands of local organisations and donor country embassies, which may have reason to keep shining a light on the situation in the country.

As for risks, despite some signs that Ndayishimiye is trying to create a break from the damaging legacy of his predecessor, the CNDD-FDD has already signalled it is likely to monopolise power as hardliners from the party also entrench their bases. By appointing mainly Hutu politicians into government, Ndayishimiye has already disregarded provisions for proportional representation in the Arusha Agreement, which included power-sharing arrangements between Hutu and Tutsi political factions. In addition, the president tightened his grip on the legal system in January by approving the amendment to a law governing the Conseil supérieur de la magistrature, an institution officially mandated to guarantee the judiciary’s independence from the executive branch, but which in practice is headed by the president. The new law gives the president even more power, essentially by allowing him to do a quality check of all court judgments. An international monitor working on Burundi told Crisis Group that “everything is in place for full and total control” by the CNDD-FDD government.

Efforts by Ndayishimiye to push a reformist agenda that would dismantle the machinery of repression created by his predecessor may well meet resistance from the bowels of the ruling party, including those who were not necessarily in favour of his selection as the party candidate in 2020. Even those who did support him may not want to see him advance certain policies. Several generals, for example, are not in favour of rapprochement with the EU and any conditionality that may come with resumption of budgetary aid, having enriched themselves during Nkurunziza’s fifteen years in power. By the same token, a failure to reform may expose the country to an even more prolonged economic crisis and the political tensions that may go with it.