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Will Bunyoni’s disgrace be Burundi’s blessing?

There can only be one commander-in-chief at the helm of this five-century-old state

In recent times, Burundi has been in the limelight for all the right reasons. Internationally, the country has regained some of the prestige it lost during the disastrous third and last term of Pierre Nkurunziza. Under his successor, Evariste Ndayishimiye, Burundi has hosted back-to-back international summits where the President is playing a leading role as Chairman of the East African Community in finding the path to peace for the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Internally, obstacles to socio-economic recovery and development remain huge; however, the recent arrest of Burundi’s former Prime Minister, Alain Guillaume Bunyoni, following his removal from office in September 2022, offers a glimmer of hope for many Burundians who yearn for change.

An end to the “two heads of state” era

The arrest of Bunyoni confirms an old Burundian adage: “Inkuba zibiri ntizisangira igicu”, which roughly translates as “there can only be one” commander-in-chief at the helm of this five-century-old state. Most organized states adhere to this principle which has been seriously challenged since President Ndayishimiye’s rise to power in June 2020. Indeed, persistent rumours about tensions between the President and the former Prime Minister gave the impression that the country had two heads of state of equal power who had different agendas. It did not help that Burundi’s 2018 constitution provides that the Prime Minister can only be removed from office either as a consequence of a criminal condemnation issued by a yet-to-be-created High Court of Justice or through a motion of no-confidence voted by a two-thirds majority of the members of the National Assembly, which potentially sets the ground for a stalemate between the President and the Prime Minister in the event that the latter enjoys enough support from that institution.

In addition to this constitutional conundrum, Bunyoni was no ordinary Prime Minister. He was at the helm of a powerful criminal network which controlled the smuggling of minerals, oil imports, foreign currency trade, the attribution of public tenders, the issuance of passports etc., the proceeds of which made him one of the wealthiest men in the country and allowed him to buy protection and loyalty from key institutions, including the security forces. It was only a matter of when, not if, Burundi’s two most powerful men would clash.

The rumours of the tensions between Ndayishimiye and Bunyoni became rife when the former repeatedly complained during official gatherings that some individuals within his administration and the ruling party (CNDD-FDD) were undermining his government’s efforts to reform the country. Also, the President once claimed that some people wanted him dead, adding that these were not members of the opposition but from the ranks of the ruling party. Each time, Burundians wondered why no action was taken against the alleged culprits, leading to speculations that they were too powerful to be held accountable. The last episode of this confrontation came against the backdrop of coup rumours. Shortly before the removal of the Prime Minister and the sacking of the President’s cabinet chief in September 2022, President Ndayishimiye warned potential coup plotters thus:

“Do you think an army general can be threatened by saying they will make a coup? Who is that person? Whoever it is should come, and in the name of God, I will defeat him.”

With the former Prime Minister now indicted for endangering state security, it is safe to conclude that the rumors were not always wrong, or as Burundians would say: “Urukurukuru niyo nkuru”.

Does less confusion mean more clarity?

With Bunyoni’s removal and arrest, Burundians expect that there will be more clarity regarding the direction the country’s administration intends to take. Whether the current administration will meet those expectations remains to be seen. First, there is a clear need for drastic measures against endemic corruption that has reached unprecedented levels, not just against the former Prime Minister but at all levels of the administration. Crucially, if President Ndayishimiye’s public condemnations of those who embezzle public funds are to be taken seriously, Bunyoni’s criminal network must be dismantled instead of being preserved only to fall into the hands of more pliable and friendly figures to the powers that be. In other words, anti-corruption measures should extend to all individuals regardless of their political allegiance.  The country’s future depends on it.

Secondly, there is now an opportunity to create a favourable environment for the repatriation of refugees scattered in neighbouring countries. The prospect of repatriation remained frightening for many of them in the confusing context of the “two heads of state.” Things are slowly changing and perhaps for the better. On the one hand, Bunyoni, a key powerful figure in the 2015 repression, is now in prison; and according to testimonies on the ground, the ruling party youth members who were very active during the repression are now, more or less, under control. On the other hand, President Ndayishimiye has, on different occasions, encouraged refugees to return. It is worth noting that his calls date back to 2016 when, as the leader of the ruling party, he engaged urban refugees in the streets of Kampala, but in vain. The refugees could not trust his assurances because at the time he had no influence whatsoever on Burundi’s death squads. The power he now yields over the country’s institutions, especially the security forces, offers more guarantees. However, President Ndayishime will have to ensure that no rogue elements can disrupt this process by persecuting those perceived to have opposed Nkurunziza’s deadly hold on power.

Thirdly, Bunyoni’s disgrace offers an opportunity to pursue regional peace and deepen the warming relationship between Burundi and Rwanda. When the two countries began the process of normalising their relations, there seemed to be some internal resistance within the CNDD-FDD, with hardliners (including Bunyoni) opposing the reopening of the common border until the 2015 coup leaders who had fled to Rwanda were extradited. Their stance was incomprehensible since the closure of the border was only a consequence of public measures meant to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. They lost that battle as the leaders of the two countries appeared determined to pursue peace at all costs.

As a testament to this determination,  Burundi’s local and military leaders in the Northern Province of Cibitoke, which borders Rwanda, have renewed sensitization programmes, urging the population not to give any assistance to elements of the infamous Rusesabagina’s FLN who remain active in the Kibira forest and have, in the past, conducted deadly attacks inside Rwanda. Clearly, with Bunyoni (the most powerful hardliner) gone, there are solid grounds to speculate that Burundi will remain committed to the peace-building path, which in turn would yield benefits in different areas of potential cooperation between the two sister countries. Ideally, Ndayishimiye will ensure that the remaining hardliners align with his stated vision of good neighbourliness.

All in all, the end of a confusing era can only help decipher what President Ndayishimiye’s true intentions are. He now has free hands to implement long-awaited reforms that would benefit Burundians both inside and outside the country and bring about a harmonious relationship with a neighbouring country.


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