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Is President Pierre Nkurunziza ready to relinquish power?

January 27, 2020

Burundi’s ruling party has chosen its presidential candidate for the country's upcoming election. President Pierre Nkurunziza's has promised to step aside after three terms, raising many questions about his motives.

Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza
President Pierre Nkurunziza has ruled Burundi since 2005Image: Reuters/E. Ngendakumana

Burundi's ruling CNDD-FDD party on Sunday chose an army general, Evariste Ndayishimiye, as its candidate for the presidential election scheduled to take place in May. 

"The CNDD-FDD party will always be our parent, we will always remember that even if we grow up, we will never be superior to our parents," Ndayishimiye said, in an apparent pledge to be loyal to the outgoing president, Pierre Nkurunziza. "We'll always respect leaders of our party because a child can never compare himself to his parents."

Sunday's announcement signaled the coming to an end of President Pierre Nkurunziza's three terms in office. His controversial third term triggered political violence that led to the killing of at least 1,200 people and forced around 400,000 others to flee their homes to neighboring countries
Nkurunziza's 15 years in office has been marred by allegations of human rights abuses and muzzling of the press as well as the stifling of critics and opposition.

Burundian police round up a young protester
President Pierre Nkurunziza's government has been criticized by rights groups for using excessive force and extra-judicial killingsImage: picture alliance/dpa/D. Kurokawa

But during the CNDD-FDD's three-day conference in Gitega, a rural province in Burundi, Nkurunziza proudly told party members that he is leaving behind a country on the democratic path. "We [the CNDD-FDD government] have achieved a lot, God is our witness."

Read more: 'Climate of fear' worsens in Burundi

As part of his presidential retirement package, 55-year-old Nkurunziza will receive $530,000 (€480,654) and a luxury villa. He will also receive a salary for the rest of his life.

Who is Evariste Ndayishimiye?

As the ruling party's secretary-general and close ally of President Nkurunziza, General Evariste Ndayishimiye is one of Burundi's most influential politicians. He previously served as minister of interior and security, and was once chief of the president's military and civilian cabinet.

The 52-year-old joined Nkurunziza's rebel movement in the 1990s against the ruling Tutsi government. Ndayishimiye was a key signatory of the 2003 Arusha accord, which ended the war and ushered in Nkurunziza as new president of Burundi. By that time, 300,000 people had lost their lives in the conflict.

Ndayishimiye has not always agreed with Nkurunziza. "He initially opposed the president's third term bid but later changed his mind," said David Gakunzi, a Burundian political analyst and author. That makes Ndayishimiye unpredictable, Gakunzi said.

Evariste Ndayishimiye
Evariste Ndayishimiye is likely to succeed Nkurunziza as president of BurundiImage: Reuters/E. Ngendakumana

Burundians on the streets of the capital Bujumbura had mixed feelings about the man who is likely to take over from Nkurunziza. "We are afraid that we're going to be ruled in a dictatorship," one woman, who declined to give her identity for fear of reprisal, told DW.

"As a citizen, I'm not happy. I don't support Evariste [Ndayishimiye] as future president of Burundi because he acts a soldier, he acts like someone who is using dictatorship in his way of ruling."

Read moreBurundi forces UN human rights office to close

"I think it's now high time that Burundi starts a new chapter as it is the first time that a president in Burundi peacefully hands over power to another," a male resident told DW.

"I hope that Burundi will rebuild from that and become a better Burundi. I hope it can develop and strategize itself to attract investors so that they can invest in the country and create more job opportunities for the citizens so that they can fight against poverty in the country."

Nkurunziza soon out but will he truly leave?

Having ruled Burundi with an iron fist for 15 years, many observers say Nkurunziza's influence will still linger for a while after the May 20 election. "Nkurunziza is just stepping back, not going away," Charles Nditije, a former minister who is now member of the UPRONA opposition party said.

Mbonimpa: 'What has Nkurunziza done for his people?'

"He will still be working in the background, trying to protect his family and fortunes.'' Nditije has dismissed the upcoming polls saying: "There will never be free and fair or credible election." He has called on all Burundian opposition parties to boycott the 2020 election as some did during the 2015 and 2010 elections. "The coming election is meant to give legitimacy to the new president," Nditije said.

An elderly woman votes in Burundi
The May 20 election would mark the first time in 15 years that Nkurunziza would not be on the ballotImage: Imago/Xinhua/E. Ngendakumana

Under a draft legislation which was passed last week in parliament, Nkurunziza could receive the title: "Paramount leader" — the CNDD-FDD party already bestowed to him the title "the eternal supreme guide" — a reference which was mocked by critics.

In 2018, Burundians voted in a referendum that could have extended Nkurunziza reign until 2034. He however surprised many when he announced he would not contest in the 2020 election.

Read more'Yes' vote could keep Nkurunziza in power until 2034

Burundi remains one of the world's poorest countries. It relies mostly on coffee exports and is heavily dependent on foreign aid to meet government expenditure. Some of that assistance was slashed following the political violence. The country of 11 million people consists of 14% Tutsis whereas the rest are mostly Hutus. Ethnic tensions have plagued Burundi ever since it attained independence in 1962.

Apollinaire Niyirora in Bujumbura contributed to this article, which also uses material from news agencies AP, AFP and dpa.