After Burundi President Nkurunziza’s Death: Prospect for Peace and Security 0

Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza, age 55,died on 8 June 2020 from a heart attack at a hospital in the city of Karusi in central Burundi, according to a statement signed by Mr. Prosper Ntahorwamiye, Secretary-General and Spokesperson of the Government, and posted on the Twitter page of the country’s Prime Minister on 9 June. His death came as a shock and surprise to many – after being seen in public the previous Saturday, seemingly healthy, watching a game of volleyball in the countryside.His death has generated oft-cited security concerns among security experts and political analysts in Africa and around the world. Simply put, his sudden death is likely to have a significant impact on Burundi’s regional and global relations.

On the one hand, instability in Burundi will have a spillover effect across neighbouring East African countries. Burundi is bounded by Rwanda to the north, Tanzania to the east and south, Lake Tanganyika to the southwest and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to the west.On the other hand, the peaceful foundation laid by President Nkurunziza during the parliamentary and presidential elections in May 2020 is likely to crumble if concrete constitutional and political measures are not pursued. Upon assuming office in 2005, Nkurunziza’s hallmark strategy focused on maintaining peace and stability, as well as rebuilding its war-battered economy.  These priorities posed significant challenges to Nkurunziza’s government and will likely continue, at least in the medium term.

President Nkurunziza’sEra

Who is Pierre Nkurunziza? Mr Nkurunziza spent eight years in the rebel Forces for the Defence of Democracy (FDD)during Burundi’s brutal 12-year war that started in October 1993. In 2000, the Arusha Agreement was signed by the government, rebel groups and political parties that paved the way to ending the country’s war. In 2003, a peace agreement was signed that ended the brutal ethnic conflict that killed 300,000 Burundians. In the same year, the charismatic Nkurunziza had rose through his?ranks and emerged as the FDD’s leader.

Nkurunziza initially served as the minister of good governance in a transitional administration before taking Burundi’s highest post in August 2005, after legislators elected him president and ruled until his sudden death. President Nkurunziza sought a second term in June 2010 comfortably won a second term in office after all six of his challengers boycotted the polls alleging fraud. Things took a turn for the worse in April 2015 when Nkurunziza’s controversial decision to seek a third term in office plunged the country into widespread violence that left hundreds of people dead.

Opponents saw Nkurunziza’s bid as a violation of the constitution as well as the 2000 Arusha Agreement that had paved the way to ending the country’s war. Large-scale protests often led to clashes with the security forces. A coup attempt was launched in May 2015 by former Army and Head of Intelligence Godefroid Niyombare while Nkurunziza was abroad was swiftly foiled. This is symptomatic of a politically divided army. It is unlikely to have a united army in a post-rebellion regime.

Amid growing unrest and a crackdown by security forces, hundreds were killed and more than 400,000 people were forced to flee to neighbouring countries. Journalists and human rights defenders, many of whom are still in exile, also left the country, fearing for their lives. Despite several delays, an opposition boycott and international pressure, the polls were held in July 2015, with Nkurunziza winning the third term. After the 2015 elections, the situation in the country has not been good – both in terms of stability and economics. Donors have cut off funding and placed sanctions on Burundi.President Nkurunziza’s 15-year reign comprises of mixed positive and negative memories among Burundians, Africans and the international community. He will be remembered positively as a peace and nation builder. Burundi enjoyed relative peace and security or, in other words, an end to the civil war. The 2005 election brought calm, confidence, hope, and a return to the country by many refugees from neighbouring African countries including Tanzania, Kenya, Uganda, Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and South Africa. In the last five years, President Nkurunziza boasted in his speeches to have boosted the country’s economy, started seven hydroelectric dam projects, built hospitals, schools and launched a youth bank.

Before his death, Mr. Nkurunziza is credited for initiating the May 2020 non-violent elections to usher in a peaceful transition from military to democratic governance. His successor and designated heir, Major General Évariste Ndayishimiye, secretary-general of the ruling National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Force for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), was declared the winner of the disputed presidential election of 20 May 2020 with more than 68% of the vote. Accordingly, he was due to be sworn in on 20 August this year.

However, his authoritarian rule drew international condemnation and the International Criminal Court opened an investigation into whether his government committed crimes against humanity, including murder, torture, rape and disappearances. In retaliation, Mr. Nkurunziza withdrew Burundi’s membership in the court in 2017 and shut the U.N. human rights office in the country in 2019. The moves isolated Mr. Nkurunziza’s government and pushed donors, like the European Union, to withhold financial support. His death offer hope for the many victims to know the truth about the crimes committed during his presidency and who was responsible.

Post President Nkurunziza’s era

Following the unexpected death of President Nkurunziza, the president of the National Assembly, Pascal Nyabenda, had to take over as interim president, according to the country’s constitution.But, on 12 June, Burundi’s Constitutional Court ruled president-elect Ndayishimiye to assume power. On 18 June, Major General Ndayishimiye was sworn in as Burundi’s new president. In his first speech at the oath-taking ceremony, Mr. Ndayishimiye pledged to defend the ‘interests of the nation, and ensure national unity and cohesion of Burundian people.

Fifteen years was a concise period for guaranteeing security to a developing country like Burundi, which had not completely recovered from an ethnic civil war that lasted for more than a decade. The former president’s initiatives and reconciliation projects—meant to heal the remaining scars and prejudices—are now left in uncertainty. Unfortunately, many post-conflict governments in Africa favour the ethnicities represented by those in power are usually at odds with the countries’ intended democratic practices and institutions.  

Nkurunziza’s desireto stay longer in power might have been to keep the country stable after the war. Consider Rwanda as a neighbouring example. Paul Kagame’s protracted presidential term and his development projects seem to be yielding fruits, as he concentrated on healing and uniting the people over the years. The father of Rwanda, President Kagamestifled opposition from home and abroad. While it may be arguedthat his approach has prevented 1994-like genocide, it is hard to predict the future stability of Rwanda in a post-Kagame era, just like Burundi following the sudden death of President Nkurunziza.

In most cases, there is disagreement among the former leaders about controlling certain government ministries and parastatals. As a response, it takes the incumbent president a lot of sacrifices and compromises to exert control over all factions in exchange for peace and security. Such regimes inevitably have both supporters and detractors.

Like in most countries, new presidents come along with new groups of supporters with whom to work with. In many Africa countries, people are mostly selected on political lines and trust, rather than merit.

Presidential loyalty, as opposed to meritocracy, is more profound in countries where the president in power favours and compensates those who supported their elections. Importantly, former French colonies in Africa have a track record of coups d’état, in which former presidents want to come back to power or militarily oppose the ruling parties. However, President Nkurunziza’s deathmay put his supporters in a difficult situation. Such a situation will either call for subjection under the new leadership or create another faction opposing Évariste Ndayishimiye, Burundi’s newly sworn president.

The cause of President Nkurunziza’s death remains unclear, thus opening up space for public speculation and conspiracies. At the moment, two claims suggest the cause of his death. The official position is that he died of a heart attack, explaining that he watched a volleyball match the day before being falling sick. Critics claimed that he died of COVID-19. If such suspicion arises, the president’s death could divide party members. In this scenario, the opposition might undermine the elections and push for a different leader.  Besides, the military might again take over and return the country to military rule. Depending on the military leaders and their intentions, the problem of ethnicity might also arise. If one or two of these scenarios come about, chaos will ensue, leading to a civil uprising and war.

One major consequence of an uprising in Burundi is the movement of nationals (internally displaced persons); the influx of refugees to neighbouring countries like Tanzania, the Congo, Rwanda, Kenya, Uganda, and South Africa that still host thousands of Burundian as a result of the previous war. This kind of migration will increase the social and economic burden of recipient countries already strained by refugee crises. Humanitarian crises, too, might worsen, calling for the assistance of the African Union (AU) and the United Nations (UN). Such a spillover and its consequences are contrary to recent calls by the African Union. It goes against the 2020 AU celebration theme, “Silencing the Guns,” a sign that the continent is determined to use peaceful means rather than guns to settle political disputes. 

Looking Forward

Mr. Nkurunziza’s commitment to security and rights for all irrespective of the social, ethnic, religious or political background remains a beacon on which Burundians can build on to further their development objectives.

The decision of the Burundi Constitutional Court on 12 June 2020, is a step in the right direction. The president of one of the highest courts in the land, Mr. Charles Ndagijimana ruled that the country is not going to apply Article 121 of the Constitution, which states among other things the following:

In case of a vacancy because of demission, death or any other causes of a definitive end to his functions, the interim will be assured by the president of the National Assembly or, if he is also impeded from exercising his functions, by the Vice-Presidents of the Republic and the Government acting collectively. The Constitutional Court called upon by the Vice-Presidents of the Republic and the Government acting collectively will announce the vacancy. The temporary authority may not form a new Government…”

Article 121 is to the effect that where the office of the president is vacant for some reasons, either  because of resignation, death or any other cause, the president of the National Assembly or Vice president of the Republic (depending on the circumstances) will in the interim, announce the vacancy and resume office for a period of no less than a month and no more than three months, everything being equal.

Mr. Ndagijimana also added that the president elected by the people of Burundi should be sworn in as soon as possible. Acting upon this decision will mitigate a possible conflict,asit will give the president powers to keep certain institutions and situations under his control.  

The AU and the UN should be proactive in managing conflicts and in achieving peace and security. Furthermore, the AU should remind the people of Burundi of their constitution’s preamble, which affirms national unity, peace, and reconciliation under the Arusha Accord of 2000 and respect for human rights, as enshrined by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Also, the AU and the UN should remind the new regime that international aid will be withdrawn if the government uses arms and force on its people.Let the presence of AU and UN officials be felt in Burundi, as they collaborate for peace.


Burundi’s future and stability after the death of President Pierre Nkurunziza depends, to a large extent, on the domestic politics and foreign affairs approach of the new government as well as the leadership style of President Évariste Ndayishimiye who was sworn in on 18 June 2020. President Ndayishimiye’s policies and leadership approach have to be proactive, multifaceted, and dynamic to maintain peace and stability.He will need the support and collaboration of sub regional member states,the African Union, European Union and other allies to succeed in this new role. This is because, following the 2015 elections,Burundi has struggled to unite the country. Of course, the AU might find this task to be difficult because President Nkurunziza, in his third term, accused Rwanda, one of the most instrumental neighbours,of negatively influencing the country’s politics. Nevertheless, the AU must use its expertise, regional leadership, and diplomatic capital to salvage the sinking ship that is Burundi, whose loss of its former president is, in a positive perspective, a fresh start on the country’s path to peace and prosperity.  

President Évariste Ndayishimiyecan foster social cohesion,peace and stability in Burundi by taking simple but concrete steps. Simple and concrete steps have the potential to alter the course of Burundi positively. Overall, Burundians, Burundi partners and critics share some common goals that can foster national cohesion and enhance national development. First, it has been echoed that bringing back to Burundi the refugees in the camps promotes national cohesion. Second, bringing back the intellectuals in exile increase diversity and capacity of Burundians to take part in the development of their country. And third, renewing ties with the international community is vital for the government of President Ndayishimiye to get the help much needed to develop Burundi.

President Ndayishimiye’s foreign policy approach and democratic governance at home could help mend relations with Rwanda, which have deteriorated in recent years. As mentioned earlier, Burundi has accused Rwanda of masterminding the foiled coup in 2015, while Rwanda has accused Burundi of sheltering rebels associated with the genocide that ripped Rwanda apart in 1994. Domestically, President Ndayishimiye might face resistance from the generals and leaders within the ruling party. However, he also has the chance to pitch himself as the man to unite Burundi and lead it out of its political and economic isolation. The future of Nkurunziza party and Burundi will depend on President Ndayishimiye’s ability to reassure the generals and key cadres of their future and privileges.

Hubert Kum Foy &Ernest Muchu Toh

African Center for Science and International Security, Ghana