Purge keeps fragile peace in Burundi after coup talk

Saturday September 10 2022

Burundi President Evariste Ndayishimiye holds a stick, the symbol of power, during his swearing-in in Gitega on June 18, 2020. The former military man promised to craft a new Burundi that will be respected world over. PHOTO | AFP

By The EastAfrican

The manner in which Burundian deputies dispatched Alain Guillaume Bunyoni from the premiership on Wednesday was ruthless but not surprising. It was a unanimous 113-0 vote to impeach him and President Evariste Ndayishimiye promptly replaced him with Gervais Ndirakobuca. Power abhors a vacuum.

Ndirakobuca, a lieutenant-general, is a former rebel who fled from school after the assassination of the first democratically elected president Melchior Ndadaye in 1993. He joined a rebel group which morphed into Burundi’s ruling party in 2005, the CNDD-FDD party.

Read: Burundi MPs eject PM in president purge over coup plot

In a fragile country like Burundi, where the military has a finger in nearly every office, Bunyoni’s marked a purging of pro-Nkurunziza people in government.

At least 54 police provincial commissioners were shuffled as the president said he was disappointed with some top government officials “who think they are untouchable.”

As the head of government, the new prime minister announced his Cabinet, naming Martin Niteretse as the Internal Affairs and Public Security minister. All the dropped ministers were allies of Nkurunziza’s regime.


President Ndayishimiye signed a decree appointing Col Sindayihebura Aloys as Chief of the Civil Cabinet, replacing Gen Gabriel Nizigama, also a Nkurunziza appointee.

Breaking the cycle

Sources told The EastAfrican that border guards have been instructed not to let them out of the country, and there has been talk that Bunyoni could be seeking asylum in Tanzania but there has been no word from Dodoma.

It would not be a surprise for Bunyoni to opt to go into exile in Tanzania. The country hosted the peace talks that led to the formation of a government by the late president Pierre Nkurunziza. The latter also happened to be in Arusha in a meeting in 2015, when there was an attempted coup to oust him for refusing to relinquish power after his two terms.

For the sake of stability and to quash any future attempts to destabilise the country, sources now say President Ndayishimiye wants to make an example of Bunyoni and his accomplices by having then charged in court. However by Friday, there had been no such news and the country it was calm.

Fissures had been opening in Burundi’s political sphere when Bunyoni had a public spat with President Evariste Ndayishimiye for weeks over a rumoured coup plot and it didn’t portend well for the newly recovered stability of the country. Burundi is the poster child of the region’s instability with coups being a part of its political fabric and to crush such a danger, President Ndayishimiye needed to be harsh.

Since taking over in June 2020, following the sudden death of Pierre Nkurunziza, President Ndayishimiye’s leadership style was different. The bad apples in the military blamed for the 2015 coup attempt against Nkurunziza’s administration had been purged, and the president had embarked on cleaning up the country’s image locally and abroad, shedding the yoke of sanctions imposed by the European Union, and having an observer mission of the UN in Bujumbura closed permanently, all in one year.

Power grab

But it turns out all was not well in Gitega, when on Wednesday news started filtering through that the bad blood between the president and his PM — who had publicly criticised each other — had boiled over and that a power grab had been in the offing.

Bunyoni, a former police chief had served as minister for Internal Security in Nkurunziza’s government.

He was very influential and was among the strongmen of the system having amassed wealth, running a series of business networks, hence having his finger on the pulse of the country’s economy.

Also read: US sanctions four Burundians blamed for crisis

Fasttrack to 2022, now prime minister but in a new government, he soon was at loggerheads with the president, with what political watchers believe to be a power struggle within the system following changes in policy that limited his influence.

“During Nkurunziza’s regime, powerful officials could do what they wanted, but now the situation has changed, under Ndayishimiye,” said a top government official, who prefers to remain anonymous.

Clean-up campaign

Other sources say the disagreement between the president and the PM started when the president launched a massive ‘‘clean-up’’ campaign in government offices, to stem corruption and targeting tax cheats.

Some of Bunyoni’s businesses were closed, much to his frustration.

Burundi has been facing fuel, cement and sugar shortages for months, and president Ndayishimiye had publicly criticised top government officials of being behind the shortages for their own benefit.

On Wednesday the Trade and Transport minister signed authorisation allowing businesspeople to import maize and wheat flour, cement and sugar.

Analysts believe that the removal of Gen Bunyoni from was one way to unclog blockages.

Burundi’s economy like those in the region was battered by effects of Covid-19, and although the country did not enforce lockdowns, no goods were coming in or getting out of the country.

Read: Burundi allows sugar, cement imports to tame black market

“What we have done is right and we expect the new Cabinet very soon,” Burundi’s opposition leader Agathon Rwasa told The EastAfrican in Bujumbura, commenting on the PM’s ouster and agreeing with the president’s choice of Ndirakobuca.

It was clear that President Ndayishimiye had been waiting for an opportune time to act going by what he said on Wednesday in Gitega prior to the vote to remove Bunyoni.

“You cannot threaten a general with a coup d’état. Let me be clear that there will never be any coup d’état in Burundi again, by God’s grace,” he said.

Irony facing Chair

The president, who is himself ex-military, must have found himself in awkward position, being the current chair of the EAC and expected to douse such fires in other countries and here his backyard was smoldering. Also Burundian soldiers proudly came out of civil unrest at home and deployed as peacekeepers in Somalia and lately DR Congo.

It would therefore be ironic for President Ndayishimiye to fall in a coup while “his troops” are out there, not just keeping for security but also remitting money that keeps the economy running, only for some government officials to destroy it through corruption.

The other simmering issue, going back to the chaos of 2015 is that the notorious ruling party youth wing, imbonerakure, had their wings clipped and influence dimmed by President Ndayishimiye, to stop them being used by some politicians to harass competitors.

The imbonerakure enjoyed free rein under Nkurunziza, beating, harassing, and kidnapping alleged anti-government citizens and even killing some in broad daylight. Not everyone was happy when their influence was taken away and order restored.

Further, the president gave more powers to the judiciary, army and police to arrest, charge and even relieve top corrupt and wayward officials from office, to bring civil sanity.

Judiciary purge

Corrupt judges were relieved of their duties after being accused of extorting money from the public by delaying judgments. No specific cases have been mentioned in public but the decision by the president came after citizen outreach programmes revealed a frustrated public who claimed that they could not get any service without parting with a bribe and that justice was almost a mirage for the poor.

Thirty five 35 magistrates accused of obstruction of justice and corruption were sacked in June as part of the clean-up and there had been disquiet in government circles.

According to the Presidency, President Ndayishimiye feared that corrupt judiciary officials would themselves become a security hazard by delaying judgments or disputes between villagers, especially on land matters.

In Nkurunziza’s day, Burundi was uncivil with corrupt government officials protected and untouchable. Some did not realise Ndayishimiye’s government was different. Bunyoni’s defiance was meant to frustrate the policies of the president’s clean-up, the Presidency charged.

So on Wednesday, deputies did what the president needed to get his work done, and unanimously voted for Ndirakobuca, who until Wednesday, was the minister for Internal Affairs and Public Security.

“The president of the republic proposed Gervais Ndirakobuca to be prime minister and the president has the mandate to choose who he wants to work with,” said Gelase Ndabirabe, Speaker of the Parliament.

“This was a very brave move keeping in mind that the prime minister had influence in the security forces. That is why you saw the shakeup affect many including regional and provincial police commissioners,” said a political analyst in Bujumbura.