Burundi: the heavy toll of Pierre Nkurunziza

Pierre Nkurunziza, who became Burundi’s “supreme patriotism guide” in March after having held the presidential office for fifteen years, died on June 8 at the age of 55. Back on the conditions of his accession to power and on the results of his three mandates.

Read also Burundi: Pierre Nkurunziza, the man who loved power too much

Coming to power and the first term

In 1993, after thirty years of military rule led by Tutsi officers belonging to a numerically minority ethnic group, Burundi chose for the first time its President of the Republic in a democratic way. Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, was elected in July but murdered three months later during an attempted military coup. The country then embarked on a decade of violence and war.

In August 2000, the painstaking negotiation process led by the mediator, the former South African president Nelson Mandela, led to the Arusha peace agreement ratified by 19 signatory parties representing all political and ethnic sensitivities. and regional. A collective democratic benchmark whose implementation required a lot of political moderation on the part of the belligerents. It will take another five years of confrontation to reach an effective cease-fire and define the modalities of the political transition and the future constitutional framework.

In 2003, the Burundian Armed Forces, which had ruled the country since 1966 after overthrowing the monarchy and proclaiming the republic, and the troops of the CNDD-FDD (National Council for the Defense of Democracy / Forces pour la defense de la democratie, la main branch of the pro-Hutu armed rebellion) led by Pierre Nkurunziza merge. Successful ethnic integration that satisfies civilian populations that are finally safe. The CNDD-FDD becomes a political party.

In 2005, a new Constitution was adopted by referendum. General elections follow one another, all very largely won by the CNDD-FDD candidates. Its elected officials carry Pierre Nkurunziza to the head of the State. The reality of power, however, is exercised by a small council comprising the main officers who structured the guerrilla movement and led the civil war. For them, the priority of the moment is that of “catching up” with their Tutsi colleagues in terms of military training, career, goods and various privileges.

For his part, Pierre Nkurunziza invests in field tasks as close as possible to the populations he mobilizes with reforms aimed at meeting urgent social expectations (health, education, etc.). At the same time, the establishment of the party is strengthening in all the municipalities of the country. Its activists gradually supervise all the social and economic activities of rural populations. The Imbonerakure youths are operational from the 2010 election campaign.

In a context where sharp disagreements are emerging between the historic leaders of the CNDD-FDD and where the opposition parties are torn apart over personal issues, the CNDD-FDD largely wins the municipal, presidential and legislative elections of 2010. Only A presidential candidate due to the boycott of the opposition parties, Pierre Nkurunziza is widely elected.

Read also Burundi: with the new Constitution, Pierre Nkurunziza assumes full powers

Authoritarianism set up as a mode of governance

With his personal legitimacy from the ballot box, he purifies, appoints and decides, becoming emancipated vis-à-vis the “council of officers”. A generation of new leaders emerging with the profile of “managers” without references other than those of the CNDD-FDD gradually replaced the historic fighting generation formed in the crucible of struggles for the democratic transition of the 1980s and 1990s.

The drift of an authoritarian and personal power begins. The first reason is that after the 2010 elections, the CNDD-FDD found itself in a position of strength which it itself did not expect. The disarray and the divisions of the defeated opposition forces then left him free rein.

Secondly, and this development is crucial, the political elites of the “past”, Hutu and Tutsi, take the measure of their suicidal boycott strategy. A strategy repudiated by their own voters, now without relays in decision-making structures and in particular at the level of municipal executives where most of their elected representatives refuse to resign.

Consequently, “civil society” organizations become the main places for debate and mobilization on political, economic and societal issues. NGOs, churches, the media see themselves de facto – and for some, against their will – invested in new missions. In a context marked by the decline of representative “opposition” political forces, these organizations find themselves on the front line in the face of a power which methodically extends its hold over all areas of society.

While the takeover of civil society organizations has become an openly displayed objective by the leadership of the CNDD-FDD, this mission nevertheless proved impossible during the years 2010-2012, due to the commemorations of the fiftieth anniversary of the Independence of July 2012, which put Burundi in the international spotlight. The authorities must maintain an atmosphere of apparent political openness and relative national consensus, both towards the Burundian population and vis-à-vis foreigners.

The media and civil society organizations then experienced one of their most prosperous periods, establishing themselves as essential relays for the success of public events organized on this occasion. The exceptional tolerance towards the media and civil society organizations adds to their own vitality.

Thus, almost all of the public and private media, audio and written press, combine in a “Media Synergy” to broadcast in the same time slots common programs whose freedom of tone extends well to -beyond immediate political issues to express directly the daily experience and aspirations of citizens (misery, health, unemployment, etc.), but also to oppose openly attempts to take control of the media by the hardliners of the regime in self-organizing National Media Conference. All activities which benefit from a large audience in the country and beyond. But this Burundian exception does not weigh much any more the day when the president decides to put an abrupt end to it for personal convenience.

Read also Burundi – Philippe Hugon: “The Nkurunziza regime is adrift”

The third term at any cost

President Nkurunziza’s announcement of his candidacy for the 2015 presidential election (an unconstitutional decision that allows him to serve only two terms at most) provokes powerful demonstrations by the population and an attempt to quickly quell military rebellion . The country finds itself in an insurmountable political deadlock.

President and generals Adolphe Nshyirimana and Guillaume Bunyoni choose the strong method: neutralization of opposition parties, arrest and flight of CNDD-FDD dissidents, outright destruction of independent radio stations, etc.

Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza delivers a speech after being sworn in for a third term on August 20, 2015.

The price of the re-election of Nkurunziza for this third unconstitutional mandate is well known: liberticide laws, brutal repressions, arbitrary arrests, massive flight of refugees abroad … GDP per capita drops to the lowest in the world, foreign investments collapse , the country is marginalized at regional and international levels, ethnic rhetoric underpins political mobilizations and feeds on the ubiquitous confrontation with the Rwandan model. But order reigns almost everywhere thanks to the militias of the ruling party.

At the end of this third mandate, the depressed context ended up forcing CNDD-FDD leaders to push out a president who became “unpresentable” in light of the growing challenges and the regional and international isolation the country is facing. A new Constitution adopted in 2018 eliminates the main achievements of the Arusha peace agreements in terms of the democratic representation of all sensitivities. The bodies in charge of telling the truth and the just (the press, the justice system, the monitoring of the elections) are put in the step. After having assured a sumptuous annuity to the outgoing president, the “most neutral” candidate, General Évariste Ndayishimiye, is designated to occupy the post of president. His victory in the presidential election held in May was formalized just days before the death of Pierre Nkurunziza.

Following the proclamation of the official results of the local and national elections, the maturity of the opponents, the firmness of the position of the Catholic Church on the results of the elections and above all the fear shared by all avoided the country a new crisis.

The fact remains that those who wanted to remain at the head of Burundi at any cost remain accountable to all voters who have flocked to express their legitimate demands in the ballot box at the polls. basic needs, freedoms, hope and peace. The death of President Nkurunziza, “supreme guide of patriotism”, confronts his successor, Évariste Ndayishimiye, the elected member co-opted by the apparatus of the CNDD-FDD party, with an unexpected personal challenge with regard to the function which falls to him and more generally to the pressing demands imposed by the country’s degraded political, economic and social situation. Without strong response to their expectations, it is not certain that the authoritarianism and the supervision of the youths of the CNDD-FDD party will be enough to maintain throughout the new mandate the realism which the Burundians demonstrated during this third disputed electoral process.

The first decisions of a president usually mark the end of his term. By asking for the immediate release of journalists and various observers sentenced for simply fulfilling their mission of information and monitoring of the electoral process, he would show that he remains the one to whom one can always express without frankness his thoughts on the functioning of the institutions, even the abuse of peers.

Finally, at the end of an election which was not dominated by ethnic cleavage, he could be the first president likely to put an end to all forms of exclusivity which today still comfort or revive him.

* André Guichaoua is a university professor at the University of Paris-1-Panthéon-Sorbonne.

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