Fare thee well, President Nkurunziza

Pierre Nkurunziza served as president of Burundi from August 2005 until his death from a heart attack – or possibly COVID-19 – on June 8, 2020. He would have been 56 on Dec. 18. After a long history of genocide in Burundi, he was a unifier, a peacemaker. “He made history,” one Burundian said. “He ruled Burundi for 15 years without a civil war.” 

by Edgar Tabaro

Burundi happens to be the birthplace of my hero, Prince Louis Rwagasore.

Burundians are not drawn to spinning or showcasing their country, so little is known outside of the biases and prejudices of archived material or contemporary writers, largely Anglophones.

Prince Rwagasore was a towering figure and certainly belonged to the league of Patrice Lumumba, Kwame Nkurumah and the like. Born of privilege (he was crown prince), he opted instead to champion the cause of the masses. He was a leftist and pursued policies of egalitarianism in a country that had deep-rooted class (some writers wrongly call the classes ethnic groups) system with the Tutsi pastoralists at the top, Hutu cultivators at the bottom and the hunter gatherers, the Twa, largely living on the margins of life.

Rwagasore is credited for leading Burundi to independence with his party, Union for National Progress (UPRONA), which he formed in alliance with the Hutu leader Mirere Kano. He rallied critical mass across the class/ethnic divide and he was seen as a uniting factor. He broke with custom and, he, a prince, married a Hutu, Marie-Rose Ntamikevyo, in 1959.

Prince Louis was assassinated by extremist rightwing elements on Oct. 13, 1961, days before his inauguration as prime minister of Burundi. His spouse and children were killed a year later and no trace of their bodies has ever been found.

The next prime minister, Pierre Ngendandumwe, another Rwagasoreist, a Hutu, was assassinated on Jan. 15, 1965, by extremist Tutsis some eight days into his second term. His successor, Joseph Bamina, a Hutu, was assassinated too by extremist Tutsis on Sept. 30, 1965. He was assassinated along other political leaders from his community.

There followed a coup by a young military officer, aged 26, Michel Micombero, who went on to unleash a reign of terror for the next decade. In 1972, he orchestrated a genocide against Hutu wherein up to 300,000 were slaughtered in April and May. Any Hutu who could read or write was eliminated save for those who fled to Rwanda and other neighboring countries.

King Ntare IV, who had been handed over by Idi Amin, wasn’t spared along with a number of the Abaganwa clan (the royal clan) in this episode of genocide. Pierre Nkurunziza’s father, Eustache Ngabisha, a governor, was killed. The Nyamitwe brothers, one ex-foreign minister and the other communications advisor to President Nkurunziza, are some of the most prominent orphans of the period.

Other genocides were to follow in 1988 and 1993 after the assassinations of President Ndadaye and five of his ministers. Between 1993 and 1996, a fragile government, first under Cyprien Ntaryamira, who was assassinated together with President Habyalimana and later Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, was formed. Many attempts to make it fail through parliamentary and court processes culminated in a comeback by Pierre Buyoya in 1996 through a coup d’état.

On April 11, 1995, the National University of Burundi had been attacked by the army, and Hutu students and faculty were specifically targeted. One hundred of them lay dead. Evariste Ndayishimiye, now president, is a survivor cutting short his law course to run into the bushes of the DRC.

Pierre Nkurunziza was injured in the leg and fled while bleeding through the marshes into the DRC to form Forces for Defense of Democracy (FDD) as the fighting wing of the unregistered political party, National Council for the Defense of Democracy. It’s against that backdrop of the turmoil that Burundi went through that I wish to eulogize President Pierre Nkurunziza.

I first met him through a mutual friend now based in France, in Kampala in 2003. He and a number of FDD combatants had been facilitated to travel to Kampala by Ambassador Adonia Ayebare to make arrangements for their participation in the Arusha Peace Process.

They were given Ugandan passports, including the new president. They were all young, in their 30s. I was a free-spirited academic in my 20s heading the faculty of law at KIU. In our frank discussions, what stood out from Nkurunziza was his desire to bury the hatchet and sue for reconciliation. He emphatically told me he knew the killers of his father and desired no revenge.

Our next meeting again through the mutual friend was in early 2005. He was minister for good governance, this time in the Domitien Ndayizeye government. On this occasion, he had bigger ambitions.

He was consulting and fundraising among friends among whom is a prominent pastor here in Uganda to run for president. He was hardly 40 and I had heard of leading figures like Leonard Nyangoma, Hussein Radjab and Jean Minani, who were much older and had played leading roles outside of the military.

He had grand plans for the common man and promoting reconciliation, food security, return of displaced persons and implementing universal primary education. I frankly didn’t give him much of a chance. To my pleasant surprise, he was elected overwhelmingly by parliament performing the task of an electoral college.

He embarked on his tasks with the energy and enthusiasm of a 40-year-old. His annual budget was $150 million at the time he took charge. In the first three months, he rolled out Universal Primary Education (UPE) with hardly any resources.

Many may not be in the know that President Museveni approved some Shs 33 billion (accumulated interest from a debt Uganda owed Burundi) for Burundi’s UPE, giving them much-needed scholastic materials and a headstart.

The program was a resounding success. The food production program took off with enthusiasm. Burundi, having faced decades of displacement of persons, had suffered perennial famine owing to insufficient food production.

Refugees were resettled and farmland opened up. Burundi became self-sufficient in food production and famine became part of its past. Nkurunziza negotiated a ceasefire and integration of FNL – Palipehutu of Hon. Agathon Rwasa. Infrastructure projects were commenced on shoestring budgets.

At the signing of the Arusha Accord, European governments, in awe of the “Madiba magic” that Mandela, the facilitator, brought to the talks, pledged billions of dollars to reconstruct Burundi. The French minister for International Cooperation pledged €760 million to fund the reconciliation process. These promises remained on paper.

In one of his terms, Nkurunziza appointed Major Bernard Busokoza who was one of the masterminds of coup and assassination against Ndadaye as first vice president. This gesture brought about reassurances of reconciliation.

The outside world didn’t understand the enormity of the challenges President Nkurunziza was facing. The Disarmament, Demobilization and Resettlement program supported by the international community was following the one-size-fits-all format that had been rolled out in other countries.

Ex-combatants weren’t given psychosocial support and psychiatric attention following many years of war that left a number of them suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. They were left to their own devices. A travesty of post-conflict reconstruction.

In one meeting with the Moroccan-born British representative of Ban Ki Moon on Burundi, he intimated to me that the role of the UN is facilitating dialogue and conflict resolution. “I am more drawn to conflict transformation rather than resolution”.

My discussions with him revealed the disjuncture of the international community from our plight as East Africans. Conflict resolution is not enough. The underlying factors of conflict remain and very often resurgence occurs. We as Africans ought to turn post-conflict societies into productive societies. Less of this, we are pursuing futile efforts.

They put it bluntly. They pointed fingers to the country that was orchestrating trouble in Burundi with details only persons with their experiences and access to information would have.

Enter 2015, Nkurunziza sought a third term in office. An ambiguity in law permitted him to run, as both the Supreme Court of Burundi and the East African Court of Justice were later to rule. Some four suburbs (districts in Burundi jargon) in Bujumbura went up in protests. Only 13 per cent of Burundi population is urban with little penetration of internet-enabled devices (Burundi though has all administrative headquarters connected through fibre optic cable run under the Burundi Backbone System).

The elite controlled the narrative using social media. Burundi was portrayed as burning. The protesters, initially peaceful, got more violent. They grabbed guns from police and occasionally shot at police. The Burundi police were unprepared for this turn of events. Policing requires a skill set and equipment that police lacked. Running on a shoestring budget, they ran out of tear gas. Crowd control experts were thin on the ground. Only a handful had been trained by Uganda in a hastily-organized crash program.

On May 13, a coup d’état was attempted. It’s like the moment had arrived. The coup had the hands of a neighboring country all over it. The coup failed when royalist troops took charge. The army then stepped in. A number of targeted assassinations were orchestrated by outside forces to create the impression there was a genocide against Tutsi.

Having interacted closely with the establishment in CNDD-FDD and knowing their actions and cosmology, I took a stand to defend them. I took to social media, talk shows on radio and TV. I did make a presentation at Makerere University organized by Dr. Kamuyu Muhwezi of the Makerere Convocation, defending Nkurunziza. Charles Rwomushana and David Pulkol were the discussants.

From that sober discussion, wherein Pulkol and Rwomushana (both ex-spy chiefs) in their usual no-holds-barred approach, revealed what I had carefully avoided to say. They put it bluntly. They pointed fingers to the country that was orchestrating trouble in Burundi with details only persons with their experiences and access to information would have. It was given wide coverage in the media. Sheila Nduhukire gave the coverage prominence and interviewed Burundian exiles who failed to make their case. From that moment, I became a marked person for my stand.

On Dec. 29, President Museveni launched the Burundi dialogue at State House Entebbe. All the former presidents attended. However, before the conference, there were attempts to disorganize it by the same forces behind the coup. We managed to get briefs to President Museveni through persons whose permission I don’t have to disclose and as such will withhold them. They were scattered. One was deported.

On a number of occasions, channels of communication would break down between Museveni and Nkurunziza. On occasion they exchanged heavily-worded letters leaked to the press to serve a purpose. Persons were driving a rift between them. I consulted with our mutual friend with Nkurunziza, Ambassador Ayebare.

I got to President Nkurunziza, who listened to my advice and agreed to work through special envoys. Many such special envoys met President Museveni and relations quickly improved. These were enabled outside of official channels. There were persons both in Nkurunziza’s office and President Museveni’s office willing to make things happen as well as Ambassador Jean Bosco Barege now accredited to Nairobi. I salute the persons for their contributions.

In 2018, I had a deep discussion with CNDD-FDD leaders. President Nkurunziza emphatically said he would step down in 2020. I don’t know if it’s blind faith, but I did actually believe him. I posted it on my Facebook timeline then. The insults that were posted in reaction showed the kind of elite buying into narratives they don’t fully appreciate.

On Jan. 26, 2020, the CNDD-FDD congress (national delegates conference) met to choose their flag bearer. Gen. Evariste Ndayishimiye emerged as their choice. Talk was that Nkurunziza preferred another candidate. He let democracy prevail.

Nkurunziza inherited a country torn apart by ethnic hatred. The old Burundi state pursued a policy of “ethnic” (I call it class) apartheid. It now belongs to the dung heaps of history. The challenges Burundi faces are now largely economic.

The political divide has representation from all the ethnic groups. The most ardent supporters and critics of Nkurunziza belong to all “ethnic” groups. This aspect and his acceptance to hand over the baton even when the constitution permitted him two more terms have sealed his legacy, his human failings notwithstanding.

President Pierre Nkurunziza, you brought honor and pride to us who had been demonized by a gullible world. I have ceased to mourn. I have now taken to celebrating your life. Eternal repose for your soul!

Edgar Tabaro, a former law lecturer practicing law with keen interest in the Great Lakes Region, can be reached at emtabaro@gmail.com. This story first appeared in The Observer.