Burundi appeared to have contained a major political crisis this week, as President Evariste Ndayishimiye moved to consolidate power, sacking prime minister Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni and replacing him with Gervais Ndirakobuca.
The lighting moves, following allegations of a coup plot earlier this week, highlight the delicate political situation in the country that has been rocked by violence since 2015. In rather startling statements, President Ndayishimiye had accused his premier, Bunyoni, of masterminding a coup plot.
For long an ambivalent member of the East African Community, Burundi has, in the past two years, given its partners in the trading bloc a lot of encouragement by moving to assume its responsibilities.
Infrastructure agreements under which Bujumbura signed to an extension of the standard gauge railway (SGR) from Tanzania to Bujumbura had excited the markets. With DR Congo now also a member of the East African Community, the SGR to Bujumbura, provided a logical route for further extension into the eastern DR Congo.
Even without considering Bujumbura’s own benefits from the SGR in form of reduced logistics costs, the prospect of linking the vast territory that makes up DR Congo, makes Burundi an important player in the grand scheme of the EAC. With a battle-hardened military, Burundi would also provide a key flank in the proposed plans to launch a regional force to pacify the eastern DR Congo.
That is why East Africa catches a cold these days at the prospect of any instability in Burundi. Internally, Burundi is fragile in many ways. Like the rest of the region, the tiny economy is struggling to recover from the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and with its dense population, climate change presents an existential threat.
Politically, the country was just emerging from isolation. The international community, lured by the promise of reform and easing of repression, was removing the yoke of sanctions that were hanging over senior regime figures.
Ndayishimiye will need to walk a tightrope to ensure that the country does not slip back into the old days of unmitigated repression, forced disappearances and popular discontent. Unless they consciously guard against it, the danger of that happening is real because of the heightened sense of insecurity and the concentration of power in the hands of hardline figures.
“Hardline” is the reputation that precedes the new premier, Gervais Ndirakobuca, a former rebel commander who at different times in the past, has also been at the helm of the Burundian police and intelligence services. That is a position he and President Ndayishimiye will have to dial-down, if Burundi is to calm the fears of its partners and rise to its opportunities.
The subject of outsiders poking into the noses of others affairs has always been controversial.
Indeed, outsiders might not always have a full understanding of the complexity of matters internal to an independent state. But in a world that is by default interdependent, few things can be described as purely internal, especially if their consequences have the potential to spill over national borders.
Burundi’s neighbours and partners in the EAC, should not be shy to engage with the leaders there, to explore ways in which they can support peace and the democratic transition.