As deceased former President of Burundi Pierre Nkurunziza sat in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, ahead of the summit for leaders of the East African Community (EAC) on May 13, 2015, the news media got into overdrive over an unfolding military coup in Bujumbura, the Burundian capital.
Six years later, President Evariste Ndayishimiye, elected June last year, made a debut appearance at the same event. Bizarre from the summit held this Saturday is that President Ndayishimiye didn’t make any reference to outgoing regional chairman Rwanda’s Paul Kagame, or even to Rwanda as a country.
The cold shoulder that the Burundians gave their Rwandan counterparts, despite recent overtures of imminent reconciliation, show there is still a long way to go for the two countries to be at peace. Their bitter fallout goes back to the EAC summit of 2015.
Back then at State House Tanzania, the Summit’s venue were also, Presidents Jakaya Kikwete of Tanzania and host, Yoweri Museveni of Uganda, Paul Kagame of Rwanda, Uhuru Kenyatta of Kenya.
The extraordinary summit had actually been called to discuss the worsening political, security and humanitarian situation in Burundi. Since the previous year 2014, government had been brutally dealing with government protests. Thousands had fled to neighboring countries already.
It seems, the coup also surprised some of the leaders. The agenda changed, at least from looking at the final statement. It was not the usual document issued at end of the summit with signatures of the leaders.
Instead, the statement was signed at bottom as “EAC Secretariat”. The first of the five points read: “Summit condemns the coup in Burundi and calls for the return to consitutional order.” The leaders said the “region will not accept nor standby if violence does not stop or escalates in Burundi.”
For hours on that day, Burundi was under the control of a renegade army General and his accomplices. Nkurunziza was held up in Dar es Salaam. By evening, the coup had failed as loyalist forces took back the capital and the news media.
President Nkurunziza returned to Burundi by road the next day May 14, via the Tanzania border and went straight to his home region and stronghold Gitega, which he would eventually change to become capital of Burundi.
From that point on, Nkurunziza never attended EAC summits – sending his vice Presidents. He never actually left Burundi. The government put in place a national and international campaign to paint President Kagame of Rwanda as having been behind the failed coup. There were weekly protests organized by the ruling CNDD-FDD party at which which Rwanda and its leader were the subject. From the young to old, political elites to ordinary citizens, they carried placards denouncing Rwanda, the ruling party RPF and Kagame.
The anti-Rwanda rhetoric became so wild that the ruling CNDD-FDD issued several statements denying the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda.
April 7, since 1994, is recognized globally as when the genocide began. To emphasize the anti-Rwanda sentiment, Nkurunziza began holding national memorial events on April 6, to mark the shooting of the plane in which Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian counterpart Cyprien Ntaryamira, were killed.
From Rwanda, apart from the usual social media posts in choreographed content about Burundi, President Kagame and his top diplomats deliberately chose to play the mature one. Kagame himself said whatever Burundians were doing, were provocative actions to try to pull Rwanda into what is otherwise internaal political crisis. The official comments from Rwanda were always very brief.
Gen Evariste Ndayishimiye, popularly known in Burundi by his non-de-guerre “NEVA”, was secretary general of CNDD-FDD. A very close ally of Nkurunziza, and said to be at the top of the hardliners in the party, Ndayishimiye very easily beat all the other ambitious challengers to become the CNDD-FDD candidate for presidential elections last year.
And when Ndayishimiye became president, followed by the shocking death of Nkurunziza who had been declared “Supreme Guide” of Burundi, the new head of state didn’t disappoint. Different from Nkurunziza who avoided making critical public statements on Rwanda, leaving it to his lieutenants, Ndayishimiye made a speech accusing Rwanda of “holding refugees hostage”. Burundi, he said, wouldn’t deal with “hypocritical countries”.
It was a huge turn of events. But then a lull came when in August 2020, military intelligence chiefs from both sides met at the border in another surprise happening. The encounters have reached ministerial level. Burundi is demanding that Rwanda hands over the alleged coup plotters said to be hiding in Rwanda. Kigali says it can only send them to a third country – a position Burundi has not showed any signs of accepting.
At the EAC virtual summit this Saturday, President Ndayishimiye, like his counterparts was in his office in Gitega. But that didn’t prevent the Burundians from showing displeasure with the Rwandans.
In his speech, which has also been published on the Presidency’s website, President Ndayishimiye didn’t mention President Kagame by name. Yet, Kagame was the chair of the summit, and has been the rotating chairman of the bloc since 2019. Ndayishimiye didn’t mention “Rwanda” in his speech either.
Instead, Ndayishimiye thanked Kenya’s Uhuru Kenyatta, who took over chairmanship from Kagame. Ndayishimiye also congratulated the new Secretary General of the EAC, Peter MATHUKI also a Kenyan – who is replacing Burundian Libérat Mfumukeko. President Ndayishimiye also congratulated Uganda’s President Museveni for his election this January. For Tanzanian President John Pombe Magufuli, the Burundian leader mentioned him twice, and in a wrong spelling of the name as “Magufuri”. The Tanzanian leader wasn’t even at the summit, was represented by his vice president Samia Hassan Suluhu.
According to observers, Burundi’s leaders consider Uganda and Tanzania as their allies. Ndayishimiye has also already had state visit to Tanzania.
President Ndayishimiye also found a way of making sure he had something to say to South Sudan’s President Salva Kiir who was also in the virtual room. Ndayishimiye expressed his condolences for the death two weeks ago of Mou Mou Athian Kuol, who was the Under Secretary for EAC Affairs in South Sudan.
It is under Kagame’s tenure that the French language, used exclusively in Burundi, has finally become one of three official language of the EAC, alongside English and Swahili. This means the Burundians at the Secretariat and other EAC bodies will not be obliged to learn English or Swahili to be able to work there. The community will be required, instead to adapt to the language desires of the Burundians.
There were also other developments announced or approved by the summit, which Rwanda’s President Kagame, as chair, was obviously instrumental in putting in place or working out a consensus formula from all the other five capitals.
In diplomatic terms, without President Ndayishimiye even expressing a word of ‘thank you’, will remain in the history books to be discussed for years to come. It was his first summit and the Burundian leader didn’t hide his displeasure with Rwanda.
In the same speech, Ndayishimiye also urged Burundian refugees to go back home saying there was “peace”, after what he called a “successful election”.
“I call upon our Burundian compatriots who still hesitate to return to their country of origin, to come and join their families in order to contribute to building their Nation and the East African Community,” said Ndayishimiye.
This past Wednesday, 1,208 Burundians from a camp in Rwanda repatriated following others that have been returning home since September last year. But there are still more than 61,000 Burundian refugees in Rwanda.