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Burundi opposition leader wins top leadership position

Ole Tangen Jr.July 30, 2015

In a surprise vote, Burundian opposition leader Agathon Rwasa was voted in as deputy speaker in the National Assembly despite being one of the main voices condemning the recent elections.

Burundi Opposition leader Agathon Rwasa
Image: Reuters/M. Hutchings

The vote came just a week after President Pierre Nkurunziza won a controversial third term. His win followed months of violent protests, much of it supported by Rwasa and other opposition figures.

Rwasa, a Hutu and head of the Burundians' Hope independent coalition was elected first deputy speaker. This is one of the three top parliamentary positions in what the government calls the bureau.

A day earlier Rwasa said in an interview with DW that he was willing to work toward a "government of national unity."

"The people want change. We must recognize this desire of the people and live up to their expectations," he said.

Alongside Rwasa, Pascal Nyabenda, a Hutu and chairman of the ruling party, the CNDD-FDD, was elected speaker of the National Assembly and Edouard Nduwimana, a Tutsi and home affairs minister, was elected second deputy speaker.

"We pledge to promote all the activities here at the National Assembly to benefit the country and its people," said Speaker Nyabenda soon after the vote.

"We will work for the same target even if we may have different opinions," he added. "We will sit together until we find solutions to our differences."

A surprise move

Opposition figures are not happy with Rwasa's acceptance of this new role. Some have even come out to call him a "traitor."

"From now on we don't consider Agathon Rwasa to be a part of the opposition. He has been bought off by the government," an opposition figure who asked to remain anonymous told AFP.

Tatian Sibomana, spokesman for the opposition UPRONA party that was allied with Rwasa told AFP that "the decision by Agathon Rwasa does put our alliance in trouble, but not in danger. We will judge him on whether or not he joins the government."

Beerdigung von Oppositionsmitglied Emmanuel Ndayishimiye in Burundi
Opposition activist Emmanuel Ndayishimiye was allegedly assasinated prior to the recent electionsImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/J. Delay

Many observers were surprised with the vote of Rwasa to this top post and fear that the move may fracture the relative peace in the country since the election last week.

"Most of these politicians always tell you that once I go inside, I can change the system from the inside. Everyone knows this is impossible and almost a lie but many of them sell it that way," said Richard Shaba, an analyst at the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Dar es Salaam.

"My fear is that we will have groups now within the opposition. Those who think they should go along with the regime and those who think they should stick to the principle of saying that it is all wrong [the election]," he added. "It may affect the whole peace process over the next five years."

One less woman

Since 2005 at least one member of the bureau was a woman. The election of three male candidates to the top jobs occurred after the assembly voted to remove a provision in the internal rules of the National Assembly regarding gender and ethnic balances that one member of the bureau be a woman. This provision was a part of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi.

"There is of course added value if there is a woman in the bureau," said Catherine Mabobori, one of the negotiators of the Arusha Agreement. Mabobori fears that this move may be a sign of things to come.

"Sometime in the future, MPs may come up with other amendments to the constitution to suppress the 30 percent of women's representation because there is no guarantee that this is irreversible. Women MPs should keep a careful eye on gains they already acquired under the Arusha Agreement," she added.

The Arusha Agreement was signed in Arusha, Tanzania in 2000 after about 4 years of negotiations. The agreement brought to an end over ten years of a brutal civil war.

Apollinaire Niyirora contributed to this article