Burundi’s alternatives after Nkurunziza’s death

It was with disbelief and mixed feelings that Burundians learned of the death of President Pierre Nkurunziza. Disbelief because for many Burundians the news of the death of someone who had brought so much pain and suffering was too good to be true. Mixed feelings because the future of the country remains uncertain despite the removal of a key cog in the calculation thereof.  

But beyond feelings, this is a moment for deeper reflection after Nkurunziza leaves behind a deeply divided nation. “Who will replace” him is as divisive and reflective of his legacy, for instance. It is unlikely that a consensus will quickly emerge within the ruling party and the jostling for position is likely to reveal latent rivalries and fissures, particularly along the lines of the need to change course and steer away from the phenomenon of Nkurunziza-ism which can now be pursued boldly without fear of repercussion.  This desire is expressed by a significant section of the ruling party’s membership and, to a certain extent, through the faction led by the president-elect; it is counterbalanced by a radical section that sees opportunity in ensuring the political survival of those whose crimes against humanity characterized Nkurunziza’s illegal 3rd term. These will seek to prolong the Nkurunziza-ism in the absence of the man himself. This wing will claim to be motivated by preserving Nkurunziza’s legacy when in fact it will be preserving criminality as well as shielding itself from prosecution. Willy Nyamitwe, for instance, tweeted immediately after news of Nkurunziza’s death broke, “A Great Man passed away but his legacy will live on.”

The unprecedented situation in which Burundi finds itself stems mainly from the fact that the constitution is silent on the subject of succession in the current peculiar circumstances. Indeed, the constitutions, both the one promulgated in 2018 and of which certain provisions are already in force and that of 2005 under which the current institutions were elected, in their respective articles 121 it is provided that “in case of vacancy due to resignation , death or any other reason for definitive termination of his / her functions, the interim is assured by the President of the National Assembly or, if the latter is in turn prevented from exercising his / her functions, by the Vice- (s) President (s) of the Republic and the Government acting collegially”. The Constitution provides for the election of the President of the Republic within a period not exceeding three months of the interim period.

But there’s a small problem. The presidential elections already took place on 20th May 2020, with the constitutional court – turning a blind eye to massive fraud and the massive evidence presented by the main opposition candidate Agathon Rwasa and the Catholic Church in its capacity as observer – confirming the victory of the ruling party’s candidate Evariste Ndayishimiye.

It follows, therefore, that there shouldn’t be elections to fill the position that has suddenly turned vacant. However, the question arises of the relevance of an interim presidency, the speaker of an already outgoing parliament, as suggested by Gaston Sindimwo, Burundi’s first vice-president, during his interview on RFI (Radio France Internationale) last evening June 9, 2020.

It gets murkier. Senatorial elections are yet to take place, slated for June 20, 2020. This has significant implications: some may argue that the transfer of power to the President-elect, Evariste Ndayishimiye, is not possible until they take place and the senate is constituted. Still, a legal basis for such an argument is nowhere to be found in both constitutions meaning that all this is subject to negotiation between the protagonists within the ruling party.

Consequently, the interpretation of what the constitution provides for or what it glosses over could be a serious cause for contention, if the rivalries within the ruling party get out of hand, which is the likely scenario especially since the President of the National Assembly, who is now called upon to act as the interim president, was Nkurunziza’s first choice as his successor. This was before a group of generals imposed the secretary general of the party, Evariste Ndayishimiye, as the presidential candidate, one of the few battles Nkurunziza lost, according to sources inside CNDD-FDD.

On the surface, this should make the transfer of power to the candidate who won elections a smooth ride. No so fast. If within the ruling party there is no consensus on who should rule in the interim, it would be up to the constitutional court to rule on this very thorny question. The legacy issue underscored by Nyamitwe could be a factor here. Thus far, the constitution court as presently constituted has always been loyal to President Nkurunziza; however, the fact that his threatening shadow is no longer present shouldn’t lead to automatic conclusions that they would rule in favor of the President-elect rather than for the Speaker of the National Assembly.

And so, the question on everyone mind is this: Will the court favor the one that the deceased president intended to impose as his heir had it not been the opposition of a group of generals, or will it favor the one who was fraudulently elected and who actually would have the power to renew the mandates of the judges of the constitutional court?

Some might argue that the interpretation by the constitutional court does not matter since the president-elect will take office in August anyway. Except that the coming months are likely to be long and unpredictable. At this moment, a mysterious illness seems to be wreaking havoc in a country where the elected officials have put God first, ignoring WHO’s recommendations in the global fight against the Covid-19 pandemic. Rumors of possible contamination of the Speaker of the National Assembly and the President-elect indicate more uncertainty, especially if the latter were to succumb to the virus, which would widen the power vacuum in Burundi. Clearly, there are many politicians who are wishing for this possibility in order to try their luck at fishing in muddy waters. They could trigger something that would place all bets off.

More importantly, should the president-elect suddenly succumb to the rumored ‘mysterious’ illness, would the Speaker of Parliament have time to organize elections and hand over power before the end of his own mandate as outgoing Speaker of Parliament? Is the assumption that he would take power only to hand it over at any moment valid in a country where lawlessness has been normalized as political practice?

It gets more interesting. If the rumours of the Speaker of Parliament and the President-elect being infected are confirmed and they fall seriously ill, would the country turn to the vice-presidents (there are two of them) to ultimately lead Burundi to new elections? Or could these mysterious illnesses, in an ironic turn of events, leave only one man standing: the vice-president of the National Assembly, Agathon Rwasa, the main opposition figure who is widely believed to have been cheated out of a decisive victory in the last presidential elections? If everything seems possible, why not this?

In a twist of fate, the late Supreme Eternal Guide of Patriotism prophesized, in prayer, that anyone who would rig the elections would expose themselves to divine anger. He was the first but may not be the last among those who conspired to steal the election and therefore proving his own prophesy.

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