General Evariste Ndayishimiye, who was this week sworn in as Burundi’s ninth president following an election win and the untimely demise of his predecessor, Pierre Nkurunziza, represents exciting prospects for his country.
The circumstances leading to his ascent to the helm may look like another chapter from the country’s chequered political history. Despite all the twists and turns leading to his inauguration, he has a unique opportunity to chart a course that better responds to current realities and Burundians’ aspirations.
Like many of his predecessors, Burundi’s new leader inherits a country at a crossroads. The country faces deep internal and external challenges. The political question is not fully settled, and the risk of instability is still present. On the diplomatic front, Bujumbura has isolated herself from neighbours and is the subject of international sanctions.
Despite all the uncertainty, Ndayishimiye has the leverage to turn a new page in his country’s turbulent politics. He won the election that brought him to power with 68 per cent of the ballot. That suggests widespread acceptance that should give him the confidence to push through a bold agenda for change. The smooth transfer of power despite the vacuum created by Nkurunziza’s sudden departure also points to a universal hunger for peace and stability.
The message from the masses is loud and clear. They have borne the brunt of the country’s bloody politics and hundreds of thousands of them have lost their lives, on the altar of competition for political power. They are war weary and all they want is a return to a life where one can wake up and go about building their dreams with a reasonable hope for completion.
Notwithstanding his failings, the late Nkurunziza, who ruled for the longest continuous tenure in Burundi’s post-colonial history, can be credited with trying to build a template for peaceful transfer of power.
Ndayishimiye’s immediate task is to consolidate this by uniting Burundians around a vision for a new Burundi in which everybody will have the space to act and express their aspirations without fear or consequence.
The smooth transfer of power is of symbolic value, a promising sign. It shows a widespread thirst for a new beginning. Ndayishimiye should not betray these hopes. The displaced masses both inside and outside the country need a safe place to return to. The task of national healing and economic reconstruction will need all hands on the deck.
In this respect, Ndayishimiye’s inaugural address is cause for optimism. His call for refugees to return home and assurances about the space for the opposition are encouraging. But these will need to be followed by concrete actions that demonstrate a commitment to walking the talk.
Above all, the new leader will need to overcome the personal insecurities that would tempt him to see alternative views as a threat to his power. He must also demonstrate incremental change on what has been achieved under Nkurunziza, who was struggling with the difficult question of equitable distribution of resources and opportunities. It is only until an aggregate number of Burundians feel that they have the freedom to participate in their country’s economy and politics without extralegal hindrance, that Burundi will see lasting peace.