The 9 June announcement of the death of Burundi’s outgoing President Pierre Nkurunziza stunned a nation and the world. Against the backdrop of the global COVID-19 pandemic, the president’s sudden illness and passing has prompted many questions, especially given the government’s reported downplaying of Burundi’s infection rate. In death as in life, Pierre Nkurunziza remains deeply controversial and divisive. As the country mourns President Pierre Nkurunziza, Burundians also grieve thousands of victims and survivors who suffered under his government.
Pierre Nkurunziza was born in December 1964 in Ngozi province to Eustache Ngabisha, a Hutu parliamentarian and governor who was killed during the 1972 massacres. Nkurunziza went on to excel in his studies and was working as a lecturer at the University of Burundi in 1995, when there was a massacre of Hutu students on campus. Having narrowly survived an attempt on his life, Nkurunziza left shortly afterwards to join the rebellion.
In February 1998, Amnesty International launched an urgent action on his behalf after he was sentenced to death in an unfair trial at which he was not present to defend himself.
He swiftly rose up the ranks of the National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) to become the rebel movement’s Deputy Secretary-General in 1998 and Chairman in 2001. After a split in the group in 2001, he was re-elected Chairman in 2004. In February 1998, Amnesty International launched an urgent action on his behalf after he was sentenced to death in an unfair trial at which he was not present to defend himself. After signing a ceasefire agreement in 2003, the CNDD-FDD registered as a political party in 2004 and won a majority in the 2005 legislative elections. Pierre Nkurunziza was elected president in a vote by members of parliament in August 2005.
Following years of bloody civil war in which 300,000 people were killed and crimes and grave abuses were committed on all sides, the start of Nkurunziza’s presidency was a moment of great hope for many Burundians. The introduction of free primary education and free maternity care by his government were very popular measures. In 2009, the death penalty was abolished.
But one shocking incident in 2006 gave an early indication of how this hope would be betrayed. Between May and August 2006, more than 30 people were arbitrarily arrested in Muyinga province, allegedly on suspicion of being members of the National Liberation Forces (FNL) armed group and transferred to Mukoni military camp. In late July, the bodies of at least 16 of the men, among them refugees who had believed that it was safe to return home, were seen floating in local rivers.
Following years of bloody civil war in which 300,000 people were killed and crimes and grave abuses were committed on all sides, the start of Nkurunziza’s presidency was a moment of great hope for many Burundians.
For many years, Burundi was home to one of the most vibrant civil society scenes in the region. Despite attempts by the government to silence criticism through attacks and harassment, Burundian human rights defenders and journalists remained outspoken on crimes under international law and human rights violations, such as arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and ill-treatment, and extrajudicial executions, committed throughout Nkurunziza’s first term. The murder of anti-corruption activist Ernest Manirumva in 2009 demonstrated the dangers of investigating sensitive topics, despite the CNDD-FDD’s commitment to ending corruption.
Elections in 2010 shifted the political dynamic in the country. After opposition parties claimed electoral fraud in the communal elections, they boycotted the following rounds of presidential and legislative elections. Emboldened by receiving 91% of votes in the presidential election, 81% in the legislative elections and 94% in the election of senators, the CNDD-FDD consolidated its grip on state power. The following years saw increasing restrictions on civic space, loss of executive oversight by parliament and attacks on the independence of the judiciary, as well as a first attempt to amend the Constitution to weaken power-sharing arrangements.
While the spark for the 2015 crisis was President Nkurunziza’s decision to stand for a third term, it was the culmination of years of attacks on civic and political space in the country. Many believe that Nkurunziza’s nomination to stand again violated Burundi’s Constitution and the 2000 Arusha Accords, which were signed when CNDD-FDD was still a rebel group and which helped end the country’s civil war. Burundians took to the streets to demonstrate against the third term. The protests were brutally repressed, security forces employing excessive and, at times, lethal force. In May 2015 while the president was in Dar es Salaam for an emergency summit of the East African Community seeking to resolve the crisis, there was a coup attempt. Apart from a fleeting visit to Tanzania’s border area in 2017, when he urged Burundian refugees to return home, Nkurunziza never left the country again.
While the spark for the 2015 crisis was President Nkurunziza’s decision to stand for a third term, it was the culmination of years of attacks on civic and political space in the country.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the unrest surrounding its beginnings, President Nkurunziza’s final term in office was characterised by violent acts of repression and an increasingly isolationist position on the world stage. Burundi experienced an upsurge in grave human rights violations, including extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment. Many people faced serious and even deadly repercussions on the grounds of their real or perceived opposition to the CNDD-FDD, simply for associating with opposition members or not belonging to the ruling party. The Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling party, played and continued to play an integral part in imposing this rule of terror.
Nkurunziza’s government continued to clamp down on any form of dissent or independent oversight. Leading human rights organizations and independent media were closed down, and hundreds of human rights defenders and journalists were forced to flee the country. While it initially cooperated with a fact-finding mission from the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights in 2015 and the UN Independent Investigation on Burundi in 2016, the government rapidly closed avenues of international engagement on human rights and declared a succession of international officials ‘persona non grata’.
The scale and severity of the crimes committed under the auspices of Nkurunziza’s government since 2015 prompted the International Criminal Court (ICC) to open a preliminary examination of situation in Burundi in 2016. While the government attempted to block the ICC by withdrawing from the Rome Statute, a full investigation was authorised in 2017 and continues to date.
While the late president will never be held accountable for the crimes under international law committed by his subordinates, justice remains as important as ever; to honour thousands of victims and survivors, to allow the truth to be heard.
Despite significant evidence, Nkurunziza’s government consistently denied accusations of serious human rights violations. While the late president will never be held accountable for the crimes under international law committed by his subordinates, justice remains as important as ever; to honour thousands of victims and survivors, to allow the truth to be heard. Only then will Burundi be able to heal, reform and move forward.
Following the 2018 referendum, many were surprised and doubtful when Nkurunziza pledged not to stand again. The CNDD-FDD’s Secretary-General, Evariste Ndayishimiye, was nominated as the ruling party’s candidate and declared winner of the 20 May 2020 presidential election. Nkurunziza was due to become the country’s ‘supreme guide for patriotism’ to be consulted on safeguarding national independence, the consolidation of patriotism and national unity, ensuring his continued political influence.
After the elections and the Constitutional Court’s confirmation of results, Burundi was in a period of transition with president-elect Evariste Ndayishimiye due to take office in August 2020. Following Nkurunziza’s death, that transition will be accelerated with the inauguration to take place on Thursday. Heavy expectations have been pinned on Ndayishimiye. The new president must break away from Nkurunziza’s tainted legacy. Burundi’s future lies in renouncing impunity, eliminating the climate of fear, addressing the human rights violations of the past and building a rights respecting society. The next crop of leaders must live up to Burundi’s international and regional human rights obligations. Burundians are waiting for a new dawn. The new leadership can not let them down.