Evariste Ndayishimiye, Burundi president-elect facing tightrope act

Evariste Ndayishimiye is set to inherit a deeply isolated country (AFP Photo/-) (AFP/File)
·4 min read

Nairobi (AFP) - Burundi's president-elect Evariste Ndayishimiye is an army general likely facing a tricky balancing act to bring change to the troubled nation while pleasing the elites who put him in power.

Ndayishimiye, 52, widely known by his nickname "Neva", was on Thursday declared the victor of a May 20 presidential election, after the country's top court dismissed an opposition bid to have the result overturned due to alleged widespread fraud.

The general was handpicked by the ruling party to replace President Pierre Nkurunziza, who reigned for a tumultuous 15 years in the tiny landlocked country.

Described by those who know him as more open-minded than many in the ruling CNDD-FDD party, he is not associated with the worst abuses of recent years.

But neither did he stand out as trying to rein in the violence that erupted after the 2015 election, when Nkurunziza won a third term that was seen by many as unconstitutional.

The violence that followed left 1,200 dead and sparked a refugee exodus. A UN commission later accused the government of gross abuses including summary executions, rape and torture.

Ndayishimiye, who serves as secretary general of a party that has consolidated its power since 2015 by quelling any opposition, was chosen for his fierce loyalty, according to one official.

He is set to inherit a deeply isolated country, under sanctions and cut off by foreign donors, its economy and national psyche damaged by years of political violence and rights violations.

- 'A dangerous tightrope' -

The Burundi Human Rights Initiative said Ndayishimiye's appointment was a compromise between Nkurunziza and a small but powerful cabal of generals who control the levers of government.

Nkurunziza had pushed instead for Pascal Nyabenda, the president of the national assembly, and a civilian he thought he could control from afar, the advocacy group said.

But the generals wanted a military man and a former comrade from their days as ethnic Hutu rebels fighting against the government during the civil war.

They settled on Ndayishimiye, a general who rose through the ranks during that conflict that ended in 2006, but one outside the innermost circle.

"He... will have to walk a dangerous tightrope in the high spheres of the ruling party," the Burundi Human Rights Initiative said in an April report.

"Whether his primary debt is to Nkurunziza or to the other generals, Ndayishimiye will have to balance competing powerful interests, while ensuring that his own position remains safe."

A party official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Ndayishimiye was chosen because he was "faithful, ready to die for his party".

But if elected, he "would be between a rock and a hard place" in his early term, kept at arm's-length and beholden to his backers.

"He will walk on eggshells in the first few years and will have to wait a long time before he gains some room for manoeuvre," the official said.

- Uphill battle -

Ndayishimiye had only just begun his studies at the University of Burundi when civil war broke out in 1993 -- a conflict that would rage 13 years and cost at least 300,000 lives.

He was in his second year of law school when extremists from the Tutsi ethnic group massacred dozens of Hutu students on campus. The young Ndayishimiye only just escaped, putting down his pen to take up a gun.

During the war he rose through the ranks of the CNDD-FDD. In 2003, he was the party's main negotiator in ceasefire negotiations that ended the bloodshed.

In the post-war years, Ndayishimiye held several high-tier positions in government, including minister of the interior and public security, and as the president's military and civilian chief of staff.

Those who know Ndayishimiye personally describe two sides to the man -- one seemingly honest and open to consensus, but fiery and quick to temper.

"He's a rather open-minded man, easy at first, who likes to joke and laugh with his friends," said one friend, who spoke to AFP on condition of anonymity.

"But unlike Nkurunziza, who is a cold-blooded and very sober animal, Evariste Ndayishimiye can be quite angry, and gets carried away very easily, and risks becoming infuriated."

One diplomat said Ndayishimiye displayed an "openness and honesty unlike other generals".

"He was the best choice, but he will have a lot to do to encourage change and openness to the opposition, in a party dominated by an extremist, sectarian branch."

A born-again evangelical like Nkurunziza, Ndayishimiye is a fervent believer, but of the Catholic faith.

Observers say his early conciliatory tone could engender some goodwill from the international community, and assist in slowly bringing Burundi in from the diplomatic cold.

Ndayishimiye "has sent out signals of openness to the international community, and it is ready to recognise him and to reconnect with him," said a senior ranking diplomat in Bujumbura.