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Burundi: Two Hugs to Solve the Crisis?

By Roland Rugero

The morning of Aug. 20, the phone buzzes and a message comes through Whatsapp: “The President will take his oath in a few minutes…” However, the day before, most credible sources had confirmed that the presidential inauguration would take place Aug. 26. Those in the know were relentlessly eyeing the Kigobe Parliament House for the fresh coat of paint that announced the imminent launch of a new mandate.

Instead, in addition to the traditional inaugural ceremony, the public was presented with two unusual images on national television. Two hugs, to be more precise: the first, and most applauded, between the head of the National Forces of Liberation (FLN) Agathon Rwasa and his eternal opponent President Pierre Nkurunziza; the second between Mr. Nkurunziza and South African Deputy Minister of State Security, Ellen Molekane

Since the inauguration the tone of analysis around the Burundian crisis shifted from the previous alarmism - which foretold a massacre "in the tradition of 94’ Rwanda" – to a more prudent view. Indeed there were those of us who, in the midst of the dogmatic cry "No to the third term," reminded everyone that the balance of power "on the ground" in Burundi was actually in favor of the renewal of Nkurunziza, and that fact should be taken into account by observers. We explained that while Nkurunziza’s efforts to secure third term had fuelled the anger of many Burundians, this outcry, especially in urban areas, was less a principled stand on points of constitutional law, than a rejection of his governance. Further, our attempts to explain how the struggle for influence in Burundi between the West and a Russia-China axis fuelled the Burundian crisis were even less likely to be recognized. 

However, recent articles, including Foreign Policy’s  "How the West Lost Burundi" and pieces in Foreign Affairs touting the virtues of power sharing through the institutionalization of ethnic groups as a stabilization mechanism of violence in Burundi – have validated some of our hypothesis.

Even then, it is a disturbing fact that many Western observers in Bujumbura witnessing the crisis believe that "the only thing that fuels political action by the CNDD-FDD (Conseil National Pour la Défense de la Démocratie–Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie) elite is greed."

According to this logic, the powers that be in Bujumbura would have only one motivating ideology, if they had any ideology at all: the gluttony of the generals. However, this elitist assumption is the result of the constant comparing of Nkurunziza’s leadership style with that of President Paul Kagame in neighboring Rwanda, as well as a kind of nostalgia for a pre-CNDD-FDD Burundi.

The two embraces from Aug. 20 tell a different story, showing that Burundian politics are not ideologically bereft. In fact, what they show is the extent to which the ideological motives of the actors involved must be considered in order to fully understand Burundian politics.

Starting with the second: the presence of South Africa’s Ellen Molekane representing President Jacob Zuma at the Nkurunziza’s inauguration and the warmth of their embrace was symbolic. In addition to being at the heart of the South African security apparatus (former Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Defense), Ms. Molekane was the first South African woman to receive specialized training in military engineering as a member of Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK), the armed wing of the ANC.

Her presence brings to the fore the ideological bonds between South Africa’s ruling African National Congress party and its little brother in Burundi, the CNDD-FDD. Both parties were created to fight identity-based exclusion targeting the majority population; both have suffered from Western and Russo-Chinese attempts to gain influence; both been fuelled by Marxist rhetoric; and have both taken up arms.

The ideological brotherhood goes all the way to the reconciliation process: where both the CNDD-FDD and the ANC have advocated for "social virtues of the truth and the forgiveness" more than they have for justice.

On Aug. 20, it was therefore two brothers in arms who were embracing, the ANC and the CNDD-FDD. Two political parties that are now facing the same threat: where the politics of identity that had maintained intra-party cohesions have begun to give way to a more mechanistic form of solidarity- one based on interests and alliances considered by the incumbent elite to be unnatural. This tension has been enough to feed the soil of dissidence: Malema here, slingers here.

The embrace between President Nkurunziza and Agathon Rwasa suggests that the CNDD-FDD has understood how unproductive it is to constantly push back on the opposition. The late General Adolphe Nshimirimana– the regime’s number two - convinced Rwasa, the key opposition leader who supported the anti-Nkrunziza protests, to join elected institutions as deputy speaker of parliament in July.

By doing so, Nshimirimana, in what would be his last political move prior to his assassination – helped to prevent large-scale violence in the country and pushed the CNDD-FDD to reinvent its style of economic governance. Failure to do so would leave the population to turn to Rwasa in 2020 - particularly as Nkurunziza's successor in the CNDD-FDD might not have the same clout and public aura.  If this were to happen, it could bring an end to the CNDD-FDD’s run as the primary political force in Burundi. Hopefully, Rwasa taking his seat in parliament will serve as an example to emulate, and nurture the idea in Burundi that democracy is a peaceful marketplace of ideas. 

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Roland Rugero is a Burundian writer and journalist. 

[Photo provided by the author]

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