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The future of the president of Burundi

18 June 2018 Jordan Anderson

On 7 June, Burundi's president, Pierre Nkurunziza, after earlier that day promulgating a new constitution permitting him to remain in office until 2034, made a statement widely reported as an assurance that he will not stand for re-election in 2020, when his current term ends.

  • Despite the statement, President Pierre Nkurunziza remains likely to stand for re-election in 2020, which would allow him to continue in office until 2027 (and potentially 2034 following another election).
  • Nkurunziza is likely seeking a rapprochement with donor nations, with the aim of restoring budget assistance and ending targeted sanctions, as well as identifying 'threats' to his government in the form of would-be successors.
  • Failure by Nkurunziza to restore budget assistance and end targeted sanctions would increase coup risks towards 2020.

President Nkurunziza's Kirundi (Burundian language) wording in the statement contained significant ambiguity, which, IHS Markit assesses, positions him as likely to seek re-election in 2020. In the statement, he reaffirmed a pledge made during his 2015 inauguration speech to "respect the decision of the Constitutional Court regarding this final mandate which you have just given me". This was followed by the comment, "We will not go back on our word. Our mandate ends in 2020. As for me, I commit and prepare myself to support… the new president that we will elect in 2020."

The Constitutional Court decision he referred to, allowing him to stand for one more term in 2015, took place before, and does not apply to, the newly promulgated constitution that now permits Nkurunziza to stand for re-election, despite his current term ending in 2020. (The new constitution was approved by a referendum and was signed by President Nkurunziza on 7 June.) Additionally, since as early as 2015, Nkurunziza has stated that he could still stand again despite his pledge. In December 2016, he stated, "I have promised not to stand for re-election in 2020, in accordance with the court's decision. But the people are above the judiciary." He noted that his promise not to stand again in 2020 was made in a "different context".

Restoring donor and regional relationships
President Nkurunziza likely intended his 7 June statement partially as a step towards rapprochement with (primarily European) donor nations, which, following Nkurunziza's election to a third term and widespread use of state violence against the opposition, largely suspended their direct assistance, which had accounted for around half of the government's budget, severely impacting state finances. European Union targeted sanctions against Burundian individuals (most of whom are close to Nkurunziza) were renewed last year until October 2018. Nkurunziza likely believes that foreign aid will be restored if he can wait out the suspensions, as occurred with the 2012-14 Netherlands aid suspension, and that if he can get aid restored before 2020, it will not be removed again if he stands in the election, probably under the assumption that he ensures security forces maintain lower levels of violence against the opposition than seen in 2015 when hundreds of protesters and opponents were killed. On 7 June, Belgium's foreign minister "welcomed" Nkurunziza's announcement and announced the sending of his special envoy for the Great Lakes to Burundi, and the next day the EU's External Action Service also responded positively, saying Nkurunziza's words were "likely to alleviate the situation in Burundi".

Nkurunziza likely also intends for his statement to assist in ending Burundi's increasing regional isolation, as shown by the relocation of the 2018 Common Market for Eastern and Southern Africa (COMESA) Heads of State and Government Summit from Bujumbura to Zambia, and the lack of observers from neighboring nations coming to witness (and lend credibility to) the 17 May constitutional referendum.

Quashing dissent within ruling party
However, Nkurunziza's speech also likely had an intended domestic audience, targeting members of his own ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (Conseil National Pour la Défense de la Démocratie-Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie: CNDD-FDD). The statement was likely intended to placate those who oppose him standing for a fourth term, and to draw out those who harbor their own presidential ambitions. In a November 2017 speech at a CNDD-FDD commemoration, Nkurunziza called for greater party cohesion and "zero tolerance" against internal dissent. Any individuals who come forward to seek the CNDD-FDD 2020 presidential nomination (or the post of prime minister re-created by the new constitution) will likely face arrest, prosecution for various charges, or threats designed neutralize them as opponents of Nkurunziza.

Our sources indicate that President Nkurunziza likely sees the senior generals close to him as the biggest potential threat to his leadership, in particular Security Minister Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni, Army Chief of Staff Prime Niyongabo, and Head of Intelligence Etienne Ntakarutimana. Less threatening are individuals suspected of harboring presidential ambitions but lacking the necessary military relationships to move against Nkurunziza, including National Assembly President Pascal Nyabenda and CNDD-FDD Secretary-General (and former military general) Evariste Ndayishimiye.

Outlook and implications
Public petitions, statements by the CNDD-FDD and the Imbonerakure (the CNDD-FDD youth wing and militia), and popular rallies calling for Nkurunziza to stand for re-election, particularly during early 2020, would indicate that the way is being prepared for Nkurunziza to remain in office. Rulings by the Constitutional Court reaffirming his eligibility would also indicate this. As occurred in 2015, Nkurunziza could wait to officially announce his candidacy until only weeks ahead of the election. To leave the opportunity open, Nkurunziza in the next two years is also likely to exploit ambiguity as to which provisions of the new constitution apply immediately and which apply from 2020. Failure by Nkurunziza to obtain the return of budgetary assistance and relief of sanctions, particularly as 2020 approaches, would increase the risk of coup attempts originating from within the CNDD-FDD, supported by elements of the military and Imbonerakure. The increasing use of the Imbonerakure to extort money from civilians for the CNDD-FDD and the Imbonerakure's own use presents them with an emerging independent source of revenue, likely increasing their future autonomy and enlarging the role of Imbonerakure paramilitary leaders in politics ahead of 2020. Absences abroad by Nkurunziza, for example to seek medical treatment, would provide opportunities for such coup attempts, but this is less likely if the absences are before mid-2019.

Increasing instances of new policy announcements coming from other CNDD-FDD leaders (or by the party itself), rather than Nkurunziza personally, would indicate that internal party forces are succeeding in pressuring Nkurunziza not to stand again in 2020. In this scenario, the party leadership would likely select a successor who lacks a strong political constituency, with the aim of the party exerting greater control over the new president than they did under Nkurunziza.

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