Burundi’s Pierre Nkurunziza: A Mixed Legacy and Lesson for African Leaders

Pierre Nkurunziza’s unforeseen death is as baffling as the recent politics of the country he led for the last 15 years. In his 15 years of power, the biggest redeeming feature of Nkurunziza’s legacy is his surprising announcement that he would not seek re-election in the May 2020 elections. It is also telling that this announcement caught many by surprise. This is because, in a continent where those who occupy power are loathed to relinquish it and are not above changing constitutions to extend their incumbency, Nkurunziza’s offer to resign as president was indeed an irregularity. His death, reportedly because of heart failure, came before he was due to hand over power to his chosen successor Évariste Ndayishimiye. Nkurunziza remained somewhat a mystery right to the end. His rise from rebel leader to presidency was not easy in a country where ethnic strife was bloody. His 15 years in office punctuated Burundi’s unstable political history with a semblance of ethnic stability but blighted by economic malaise and relentless hostility to press freedom and human rights observers. 

Nkurunziza’s supporters will most likely underscore Burundi’s notional stability during his time in power and his ultimate decision to step aside. But this, too, is apocryphal. It should not be forgotten that after his resignation, Nkurunziza was to assume the position of Supreme Guide of Burundi. This was most likely going to be a perpetuation of his power, under another guise. To many other people, including the many Burundians who fled the country to other countries, Nkurunziza’s legacy is a gory stretch of suppression. Many who died and suffered within the country will also not hold fond memories of the last 15 years. These conflicting appraisals of Nkurunziza’s legacy are expected of someone who navigated the inherently divisive terrain of politics. However, some things cannot be just be left to debate, like Nkurunziza’s cavalier attitude towards the coronavirus and how it subjected his citizens to needless exposure. The excesses of the Imbonerakure, the ruling party’s youth wing militia, are a memory to soon and violent to be blotted by the passing of Nkurunziza. 

Nkurunziza, like Robert Mugabe, had a chance that history had accorded him to bind the wounds of a fractured nation and forge, from its ethnically diverse people, a united entity. Because of his controversial stay in power, through constitutional abrogation and state-sponsored terror, he squandered that opportunity. This is the lesson that other leaders in Africa could take to heart. The response to Nkurunziza’s death on social media, especially among the African youth, has been instructive. Coupled with the acknowledgement that people should not ordinarily relish another person’s death, some African youths have said in jest that their wishes for their country have been answered in Burundi; the underlying implication being that some youths are fed up with their leaders and cannot wait to celebrate their exit. This says a lot about the quality of African leadership in general. It is heartening that through social media, Africans seem to be more informed of what is happening, not only in their country but elsewhere, too. For this reason, it is likely that many people will keep an eye on how Burundi will transition to a new era after Nkurunziza. 

Ndayishimiye will have many eyes trained on how he will emerge from the toga of being Nkurunziza’s lackey to forging his own style of leadership. The task ahead is of Sisyphean proportions. The country he inherits is a poisoned chalice and people should give him the patience and support that is needed to repair the many faulty aspects of Burundi. These could be gaining investor confidence by creating space for human rights observers, journalists and opposition parties to operate freely. Within his own party, he has to rein in the Imbonerakure whose actions attracted considerable odium. Another immediate task will be stopping the government’s suicidal stance on the coronavirus. What has been the case thus far means that Burundi is yet to suffer large-scale devastation from the virus. The country will need all the help that it can marshal, but that can only work if the incoming government pronounces itself ready to foreswear the negative ways of Nkurunziza’s rule. More than mere pronouncements, Ndayishimiye should act in an urgent manner befitting a person who wants to correct the wrongs of one of the world’s poorest nations. Unfortunately for those who might have a charitable assessment of Nkurunziza’s legacy, good leadership on Ndayishimiye’s part will underscore Nkurunziza’s disastrous presidency; however, bad leadership on Ndayishimiye’s part will be a case of him following his master’s act. Thus, however one would look at Burundi, Nkurunziza’s remain a regrettable presidency. 

Emmanuel Matambo is a Senior Researcher at the University of Johannesburg’s Centre for Africa-China Studies (CACS)

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