Burundi’s president, General Évariste Ndayishimiye, recently sacked the country’s prime minister Guillaume Bunyoni after alleging that Bunyoni was plotting a coup against the government.
The dismissal was a public display of divisions within the ruling party (CNDD-FDD) about what direction the country should go in, and what the government’s priorities should be.
In the preceding months, it had become clear that the CNDD-FDD’s authority was waning as a result of these internal divisions. There were signs that the party was slowly losing its popularity ahead of the next legislative and municipal elections in 2025 and presidential elections in 2027. The rumoured coup plot was part of this trajectory.
The president’s decision to fire Bunyoni followed a standoff between the political actors over several days. There were mounting fears that the country could descend into violence again.
Based on our research on the peace process in Burundi over the past 12 years, it is apparent that the president and former prime minister represent two divergent political groups of influence within Burundi’s political arena. The two groups are dominated by high-ranking officers – the generals – with different ideologies regarding the management of the country and social welfare.
The first group is made up of influential officers from the former rebel movement, CNDD-FDD. This group is striving to bring some deep reforms following decades of poor governance marked by endemic poverty and rampant corruption.
The second group is composed of powerful people, among them many high-ranking police officers. For the past 15 years, members of this group have been enriching themselves at the expense of the country’s development. In the eyes of many Burundians, the sacked prime minister was the face of this group.
Bunyoni’s removal is an attempt by President Ndayishimiye to get rid of corrupt officials whose presence within the highest echelons of state administration was derailing government’s efforts to repair the country’s economy in the aftermath of sanctions that were imposed in 2015 after former President Pierre Nkurunziza’s third term in office. Ndayishimiye’s initiatives included increasing access to fertilisers for farmers, supplying basic necessities such as sugar and cement, and improving the energy supply.
In removing Bunyoni, Ndayishimiye has communicated his commitment to his electoral promises. And his action seems to have been well received by Burundians. The hope is that, with a new and young team in cabinet, the president will be able to meet his electoral slogan:
Since its independence in 1962, Burundi has been fraught with violent conflict. The root of this conflict has been a complex interplay between ethnic and political factors. This has resulted in the death of hundreds of thousands of people. Many others have fled to other countries. In 1998, peace negotiations began in Arusha, Tanzania yielding a deal in August 2000.
At this stage an agreement had been reached by the main conflicting parties – Uprona, Frodebu and Palipehutu. But violence continued between the government army, the CNDD-FDD, and the military wing of Palipehutu, the Forces nationales pour la libération (FNL).
After further negotiations, the CNDD-FDD signed the ceasefire, but FNL continued fighting. So when the 2005 general elections were held, not all conflicting parties were part of the process.
The 2005 elections were seen by many as a significant turning point in the decades-long violence in Burundi despite being held in the midst of ongoing conflict. The peace negotiations ended in 2009, when the FNL finally gave up their arms and became an official political party. This was in the hope that they might stand a chance to win in the 2010 elections.
The CNDD-FDD won the presidential elections after most of the opposition parties boycotted the polls.
Conflict erupted again in 2015 in response to President Nkurunziza’s running for a third term in office. But generally, it’s been a smooth ride for CNDD-FDD in the last 17 years as a divided and weak opposition has been unable to present a united front. Nkurunziza remained in power until his sudden death, on 8 June 2020.
When Ndayishimiye took over the country’s leadership, he initially did not remove members of the administration left behind by the Nkurunziza regime. Those retained included the finance minister and the governor of the central bank. Also spared was Nkurunziza’s chief of cabinet, General Gabriel Nizigama, one of the most influential and powerful officers. Nizigima was removed at the same time as Bunyoni.
The cabinet headed by Bunyoni was seen as a soft and slow transition from a system established a decade earlier by Nkurunziza. Nkurunziza, a rebel leader, came to power in 2005 in the framework of the Arusha peace process. The Arusha pact allowed his movement – the CNDD-FDD – to convert to a political party that won the first post-conflict elections.
Bunyoni’s appointment was criticised by many, including the donor community and other foreign partners. Bunyoni has been on the US and EU sanction list over allegations of being involved in the violence that targeted opposition leaders. Recently, he was accused of derailing many of the government projects despite being the prime minister and chief of the executive. His firing was one of the tough decisions Ndayishimiye needed to make.
The departure of Bunyoni from the government signals the arrival of a new political order after two years of a difficult transition. For many Burundians it is a start of a new era which brings some hope despite the many challenges the country still faces.
Burundi has experienced a fraught economic situation over the past seven years as a result of the 2015 political crisis, and economic sanctions imposed by western donors. The economic downturn has led to fiscal and balance of payment difficulties. To compensate for the loss of external resources, the government mobilised internal resources, but this has not been sufficient for ever-increasing social demands driven by sustained population growth.
The COVID-19 pandemic was yet another terrible blow to the fragile economic recovery. According to the recent World Bank report the consequences of the pandemic intensified macroeconomic imbalances in Burundi’s economy. Economic growth was estimated at 1.8% in 2021 compared to 0.3% in 2020, supported by an easing of restrictions related to COVID-19. However, inflation is projected to remain high at around 9% in 2022, particularly following the impact of the Russia-Ukraine conflict on food and oil prices worldwide.
So, the question is whether this political shakeup will bring the much expected reforms that many Burundians want to see. Will this political shift create better conditions to tackle economic challenges and put Burundi back on the path of economic and social recovery?
It is still early to make any reliable prognosis. But the decisions Ndayishimiye made show that he is willing to start a new chapter for Burundi. It will be very difficult to address all the challenges the country is facing. These include a weak economy hampered by the current geopolitical conjunctures, a political elite that lacks a sense of responsibility, and one of the youngest and fastest growing populations on the continent.
To address these pressing issues, the president will need to mobilise both internal forces and international support. He should also be able to manage existing resources well to attract the right investors.
So far, there seems to be no sign of a return to ethnic or political conflict. The threat to Burundi’s future lies in the economic realm.
Patrick Hajayandi, Research Affiliate, University of Pretoria and Cori Wielenga, Associate Professor in the Department of Political Sciences and Acting Director of the Centre for Mediation in Africa, University of Pretoria