Burundi: “The president has crossed the Rubicon – there’s no turning back”
In the wake of the arrest and detention of former PM Alain Guillaume Bunyoni, political observers weigh the consequences.
There was some surprise when Alain Guillaume Bunyoni, once regarded as the power behind the throne, appeared at the Supreme Court in Bujumbura for the first time after his dramatic 21 April arrest, in handcuffs and clad in the familiar green uniform donned by the very prisoners he was so accustomed to putting away in his heyday as police chief.
The arrest followed a week-long manhunt that extended at one point into Tanzania, forcing the authorities there to deny that Bunyoni was in their jurisdiction. Burundian authorities did not specify why they were looking for him except to state that he was wanted for questioning « over some suspicious cases ».
“It is true that we searched his home. I do not know the motives behind this operation. The General Prosecutor’s Office wanted to question him, but he has not yet been found,” said Martin Ninteretse, Minister of Interior, Public Security, and Community Development.
Attorney General of the Republic, Sylvestre Nyandwi disclosed that Bunyoni was apprehended on 21 April, in the Nyamuzi, Mubone area of Kabezi Commune in Bujumbura Province where he was hiding.
Bunyoni is accused of undermining national security, sabotaging the proper functioning of the national economy, illegal arms possession and insulting the president. Detained at the infamous Ngozi Prison in the north of the country, Bunyoni, was sent back there soon after the charges were read, his plea for bail denied.
Arrested in his wake is Desire Uwamahoro, Commander of the Riot Squad, for allegedly informing Bunyoni about the search operations. Known to be a confidant of Bunyoni, he was fired from his position on 25 April. He is currently incarcerated at Gitega Prison in central Burundi.
Bunyoni’s daughter, Darlene, who lives abroad, wants transparency in her father’s arrest. “We want nothing but transparency. My family has been locked in the house and is under 24h/7 surveillance; locking minors in the house is not the solution to the economic chaos plaguing the country.”
The next day, she attempted to claim her father’s innocence by posting: “Both Gasekebuye and Nkenga-Busoro properties were searched earlier this week. No money, illegal weapons, or other evidence of illegal activity has been found. I truly hope to get answers very soon as all home cameras have been deactivated.”
In an interview with the BBC on 25 April, she said that there had been no arrests of other family members. However, they were still not allowed to visit General Bunyoni. “I can talk to my family, but I’m not sure their phones are not tapped,” she told the BBC.
The fall of Bunyoni
A senior figure in the ruling CNDD-FDD party, Bunyoni was appointed Prime Minister in June, 2020 – just 10 days after Ndayishimiye took office following the death on 8 June of Nkurunziza. Like both the late and current presidents, Bunyoni is a stalwart of the CNDD-FDD, having joined the Forces pour la Defense de la Democratie, the military wing of the current ruling party, as a student at the height of the civil war in the mid-1990s.
When a ceasefire to end the civil war in 2003 was reached, Bunyoni was appointed to run the new police force. He was then appointed public security minister between 2007 and 2011, a post to which he returned in 2015, effectively as enforcer of Nkurunziza’s third term project.
His role in the ensuing violence put him on an international sanctions list.
While Ndayishimiye has expressed his commitment to breaking with the CNDD-FDD’s legacy of brutality and human rights abuses in which Bunyoni played an instrumental role, his arrest speaks more about a reconfiguration of power within the ruling party rather than a commitment to cleaning up the ruling party’s record.
Removed from office on 7 September 2022, Bunoyini was replaced by Interior Minister, Gervais Ndirakobuca, whose nom de guerre, ‘Ndakugarika’ (meaning “I will kill you”), suggested that Ndayishimiye’s inauguration-day pledge to safeguard human rights may have been sincere, but would have to be more carefully negotiated with the other dominant forces within the tight circle that effectively controlled the ruling party.
Sacked along with Bunyoni was General Gabriel Nizigama, Ndayishimiye’s civilian chief of staff, and five ministers. At least 54 police provincial commissioners were also shuffled.
Five days earlier, the head of state had denounced an alleged coup plot organised “by those who believe themselves to be all-powerful and [who] are trying to sabotage my government”.
During the opening ceremonies of the 2022-2023 judicial year in Gitega, the political capital, the Head of State accused a man of plotting a coup. To illustrate this, he narrated the traditional tale of ‘Maconco’, the greedy prince, eternally dissatisfied.
“This is the prince to whom King Mwezi Gisabo gave everything: power, even his own daughter. Nevertheless, Maconco was greedy and focused his attention on the royal throne. Finally, the king sent his army to fight Maconco. He died without becoming king,” President Ndayishimiye said.
Bunyoni has long been considered the number two in CNDD-FDD, at least since the 2015 political crisis, and the leader of the generals, the real holders of power behind the scenes.
The election of Ndayishimiye in 2020 brought hope for change; Ndayishimiye was seen as more tolerant than his predecessor, and not part of the more intransigent fringe of the regime. Saying goodbye to the past, became his slogan after he took office.
However, analysts questioned his ability to break free from the generals. Also, he is yet to resolve the political fall-out of the 2015 crisis when Nkurunziza and ruling party loyalists initiated a violent campaign to extend presidential term limits, destabilising the party and cracking down on any independent dissenting voices.
If he seeks to reform, “he risks running into obstacles, reluctance on the part of these generals who are interested in protecting themselves,” warned Carina Tertsakian of the Burundi Human Rights Initiative.
Many activists remain concerned that hardliners from the Nkurunziza era still hold influential government positions. It is notable that there have been no moves to bring the perpetrators of the arrests, torture, disappearances, and murder of the regime’s opponents – including the dreaded Imbonerakure, the ruling party’s armed youth wing – to justice.
In September 2020, three months after taking office, Ndayishimiye announced his break with the past:
“We’ve said goodbye to the past and we’ve started new things… In the past, you knew that if you were a government agent… you were important, you could imprison people however you wanted. That’s finished. We’re in a democracy (now).”
No more than a week later, however, the arrest of former parliamentarian Fabien Banciryanino, a vocal critic of the regime over its human rights record, suggested that this was easier said than done. Banciryanino would only be released a year later in October 2021, after Burundian human rights activists launched an international campaign to pressure the Ndayishimiye government for his release.
More recently, the continued imprisonment of online journalist, Floriane Irangabiye, after an appeals court upheld her 10-year sentence on 2 May, the detention of Dr Christophe Sahabo, the sustained repression of regime dissenters, the illegal and violent activities of the imbonerakure, the ruling party’s youth wing; and the fact that no senior goverment officials have been brought to justice over their roles in the 2015 third term operation and its aftermath are perhaps more reliable indicators of where Ndayishimiye stands as far as ‘saying goodbye to the past’.
A source close to CNDD-FDD officials, who preferred anonymity, explains that Bunyoni would never have accepted Ndayishimiye’s nomination as Nkurunziza’s successor, regarding himself as the late president’s natural heir. Next to Mutama I (understood to mean a respected person), a reference to the late Pierre Nkurunziza, Bunyoni adopted Mutama II as his nickname.
For a long time after Ndayishimiye’s election, Bunyoni acted as the president’s alter ego. The same source says that Bunyoni felt that unlike Nkurunziza, President Ndayishimiye did not have a stranglehold on the party apparatus.
So, against a backdrop of interpersonal rivalries, everyone tried to make allies. “For a while, some of the party’s leading figures wanted to switch to the Bunyoni camp; some hesitated before changing their minds. On many occasions, President Ndayishimiye has mentioned in his speeches “close collaborators who are trying to sabotage his initiatives” – an allusion, barely concealed, to Bunyoni.
A risk of a split in the ruling party?
Two Burundian political journalists, Antoine Kaburahe and Abbas Mbanzumutima find that the “Bunyoni affair constitutes a test of survival for the ruling system.”
The two journalists quote a highly placed source who says that “everyone is in a state of expectation”. They believe that “the Bunyoni Affair is really a test for President Evariste Ndayishimiye. He has crossed the Rubicon. There is no turning back.”
As for Darlene Bunyoni, she believes that the case against her father risks creating some uncomfortable ripples among the ruling party elite: “Is it time to open Pandora’s box?” she wrote on her Twitter account.
Bunyoni, even in detention, remains a disruptive force.