Ever since his election mid last year following the death of his predecessor Pierre Nkurunziza, Burundi President Evariste Ndayishimiye has largely stayed out of East Africans’ sights.
Some say it is because of Covid-19, and if it hadn’t been because of it we would have seen him roaming a little bit more around our region – at least more than Tanzania’s hidebound late president John Magufuli.
The former army general promised upon taking over that he would follow in Nkurunziza’s footsteps. Like Nkurunziza who frequently visited gardens in the villages to pray for bountiful harvest and even collect the crops. We occasionally see the president and First Lady Angeline Ndayishimiye gathering harvests too.
After taking a Nkurunziza-like hard line against the international community and the domestic opposition, Ndayishimiye seemed to mellow.
A Burundi analyst says that because Ndayishimiye was not the choice of Nkurunziza, who was due to step down when he died suddenly last June, but of a faction of the ruling CNDD-FDD party, he needed to first consolidate. Ndayishimiye was seen by some as a party “moderate”, a description the analyst said is meaningless because a moderate in the party would be an extremist elsewhere.
A regional diplomat seemed to agree, late last year describing Ndayishimiye as “actually worse than Nkurunziza”.
Maybe when this virus is eventually defeated and Ndayishimiye comes out, we might see him in a different light.
For now, we have his few actions to go by. On March 5, he granted amnesty to more than 5,000 prisoners, excluding those who had committed crimes against humanity, terrorism, rape, murder, armed robbery, and others.
In an innovative move, the corrupt would be freed – if they returned the loot!
Late December last year, he pardoned four Burundian journalists arrested in October 2019 and jailed for “undermining state security”. Their crime was in covering clashes between the Burundi military and a rebel group from South Kivu in neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.
At the start of February this year, he was seen as following up by offering an olive branch of sorts to Burundi’s long-suffering independent media, and shortly after his government lifted a ban on Bonesha radio station, which was shuttered in 2015 after the failed coup against Nkurunziza.
Unlike Nkurunziza, Ndayishimiye isn’t a Covid-19 denier, although if what his health minister Thaddee Ndikumana told journalists recently represents his thinking, he is a vaccine sceptic. He said “since more than 95 per cent of patients are recovering…the vaccines are not yet necessary.”
He has also used a word Nkurunziza almost never uttered – reform. Reform and modernisation of sections of the economy, not politics. Still, it is an improvement.
Beyond these, he has given us no other signs, so we wait. Hopefully soon, the real Ndayishimiye will stand up, and we shall either welcome him cautiously, or run away.
Meanwhile, some of us miss Nkurunziza. There is no East African footballing president who jails rival players that tackle him hard. We have no president riding bicycles in the village paths or praying all night. No president who tills the land with his own hands, or grows avocado. Tanzania’s President John Magufuli tried, but didn’t quite touch Nkurunziza.
Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]