Stability remains elusive for Burundi

Domestic political contestation in Burundi will intensify ahead of next year’s elections, setting the stage for a foreign policy reorientation toward non-Western partners.

Protest in Burundi
June 2015, Bujumbura, Burundi: A rally against former Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza, who secured a constitutionally-barred third term in office despite intense backlash. © Getty Images

In a nutshell

  • Pierre Nkurunziza’s exit has not delivered on hopes for political renewal
  • Opposition to the regime has been left weak and divided
  • The government will likely seek closer ties with non-Western partners

To understand Burundi’s current crossroads, one must look back to 2015, when President Pierre Nkurunziza managed to be elected to a third term through a process of constitutional engineering. However – unlike in Rwanda, where there was no opposition to the constitutional changes that allowed President Paul Kagame to remain in power – Mr. Nkurunziza’s ambitions plunged the country into a political and security crisis.

The Burundian leader’s decision to again seek office, which was seen as contrary to existing term limits, sparked intense public opposition at the time. In response, Mr. Nkurunziza resorted to repressive measures, including arbitrary arrests and politically targeted assassinations. The fact that third termism has become a regional trend did not prevent it from making Burundi more isolated in the international sphere.

After seeing out his third term, President Nkurunziza eventually announced that he would not run for a fourth one in the 2020 general elections. This news was received with surprise and relief by the domestic opposition and international observers. General Evariste Ndayishimiye, a veteran of the country’s civil war, was chosen as a successor by the ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD). Mr. Ndayishimiye won the 2020 elections and took office earlier than expected, after Pierre Nkurunziza’s death that June.

Hope for a political opening

Despite concerns regarding the fairness of the electoral process, this series of events allowed for some sense of renewal. Although there was continuity, with the CNDD-FDD remaining in power, Mr. Ndayishimiye seemed committed to a reformist agenda, which was necessary to regain the goodwill of traditional foreign aid donors. More importantly, he seemed committed to scaling down tensions with Rwanda, a crucial step toward improving regional security.

In the early stages of his term, President Ndayishimiye allowed for an opening of the political space and civil society. This paved the way for a rapprochement with the usual donors. The European Union and the United States lifted the sanctions and travel bans they had imposed under Mr. Nkurunziza’s rule and restored aid flows, including direct budget financing. However, recent remarks by the president – such as calling for gay people to be stoned – have clashed with donors’ political conditions and suggest that relations with the EU and the U.S. will remain tense.

As in many other African countries, Burundi’s already fragile economy has been hit by the disruptions provoked by Covid-19 and the conflict in Ukraine.

At the regional level, President Ndayishimiye tried to restore diplomatic relations with Burundi’s neighbors. Tensions between Burundi and Rwanda reached a peak in 2015-2016, when President Paul Kagame accused Burundian leaders of “killing their own people,” and President Nkurunziza alleged that the Rwandan regime was supporting a coup in his country. President Ndayishimiye sought to pour water on these flames after entering office.

Political repression and weak opposition

Notwithstanding these developments, recent events suggest that the political and security outlook in Burundi still mostly resembles the dim period of 2015-2016. Despite some changes and divisions within the military and political elite, the CNDD-FDD has further consolidated its power.

This has been a consequence of two dynamics. First, the government’s resorting to repression, including violent measures, against its opposition. Among other actions, the main opposition party, the National Congress for Liberty (CNL), was suspended last year. Second is the structural weaknesses of the CNL itself, which has been fraught with internal divisions.

Another alarming sign is President Ndayishimiye’s rehabilitation of the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling party. Counting around 50,000 members, the Imbonerakure acts as a militia force in defense of the president and the ruling party. Some of its members have been accused of perpetrating abuses, including torture and assassinations, against the opposition.

These trends suggest that although the strongman rule of Pierre Nkurunziza has come to an end, authoritarianism will likely persist in Burundi in the form of a hegemonic party sustained by patronage networks.


Facts & figures

Burundi and region

Security challenges

As elsewhere, reforming the military remains a necessary condition for stabilization in Burundi. However, a 2022 legislative initiative suggests that the armed forces are set to remain heavily politicized. The National Assembly, dominated by the CNDD-FDD, passed a law establishing the Reserve and Development Support Force (FRAD) – a paramilitary group charged with defending the “territorial integrity” of Burundi, supporting development and encouraging patriotism. According to the opposition, the initiative aims to create a parallel army and legitimize the Imbonerakure.

Worrying domestic signs have been accompanied by escalating tensions nearby. President Ndayishimiye, like his Congolese counterpart Felix Tshisekedi, has accused Rwandan leader Paul Kagame of supporting rebel groups in the region. Visiting Kinshasa, Mr. Ndayishimiye (who serves as the African Union’s representative for the Youth, Peace and Security Agenda) declared that young Rwandans would not tolerate being “prisoners” of the regime.  

The border between Burundi and Rwanda was closed for seven years. In 2022, after a series of diplomatic initiatives – including Rwanda’s decision to extradite RED-Tabara rebels wanted by Burundi – the frontier was finally reopened. Based in South Kivu, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the RED-Tabara (Resistance Movement for the Rule of Law) has been targeting the Burundian regime since 2015. However, Burundi has recently closed the border with Rwanda once more, citing the country’s support to the rebels.

Burundian president Evariste Ndayishimiye
Evariste Ndayishimiye, Burundi’s president, speaks during the United Nations General Assembly in New York on Sept. 21, 2023. His succession to Pierre Nkurunziza initially assuaged some concerns by Western partners, but old tensions have since been reinflamed. © Getty Images

The refugee flows created by decades of violent conflict in the region also pose a challenge to stability. With a population of 13 million, Burundi (like Rwanda) is one of Africa’s most densely populated countries. Land is critical for the livelihoods of 90 percent of the population, who depend on small-scale subsistence agriculture. During the 2015 crisis, more than 400,000 Burundians fled the country. Amid hopes for stabilization, those who return now struggle to regain access to land.

Despite reengagement with international donors and a $271 million IMF loan facility secured last year, Burundi suffers from the persistence of patronage networks that would be negatively impacted by reforms and will create friction. Ongoing political tensions and the structure of the Burundian economy suggest that economic development, like political stabilization, may remain out of reach for the foreseeable future.

As in many other African countries, Burundi’s already fragile economy has been hit by the disruptions provoked by Covid-19 and the conflict in Ukraine. Inflation and fuel shortages have further deteriorated living conditions in a country where two-thirds of the population lives below the poverty line.

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Developments in the regional and international sphere and the 2025 general elections will determine Burundi’s political, security and economic outlook. In this context, two main scenarios should be considered.

Most likely: Instability and realignment

Under a first, most likely scenario, the 2025 elections will strengthen the position of President Ndayishimiye’s winning coalition, the military elite that has benefited from patronage networks, and the paramilitary forces loyal to him, such as the Imbonerakure. In this scenario, despite the weaknesses of the main opposition party, contestation to the regime will emerge ahead of the 2025 elections.

Regime attempts to neutralize this opposition will lead to increased state repression and violence, including via parallel forces like the FRAD. Burundi will realign its foreign policy orientation, attempting to consolidate relations with alternative partners like Russia (which signed a memorandum with the government last year on nuclear cooperation).

Moreover, this scenario of instability and international realignment would be reinforced by regional factors. With no solution in sight to violence in the Great Lakes Region, tensions between Rwanda and Burundi (and between Rwanda and the DRC) are expected to continue, and possibly escalate, in the second half of 2024. Violence, refugee flows and border closures will continue to negatively impact Burundi’s economy, compromising regional integration within the East African Community.

Less likely: Peaceful elections

Under a second, less likely scenario, the absence of a strong and united opposition in 2025 could dissuade substantial forms of resistance against the CNDD-FDD. A peaceful reelection of President Ndayishimiye would lead to a continuation of business as usual for the regime.

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