Burundi’s new president, Evariste Ndayishimiye, is an army general likely facing a tricky balancing act to bring change to the nation while pleasing the elites who helped put him in power.
Ndayishimiye, 52, widely known by his nickname “Neva”, was sworn in on Thursday, two months ahead of schedule following the sudden death of his predecessor, Pierre Nkurunziza, of what authorities said was heart failure.
In his first speech as president, he paid a long homage to Nkurunziza and promised to follow in his path, showing little departure from the tone of his predecessor as he lambasted the international community for interfering in the country’s politics.
The general was handpicked by the governing CNDD-FDD party to replace Nkurunziza and won a disputed election in May.
Nkurunziza, who reigned for a tumultuous 15 years, had been expected to continue to wield power after stepping down and some observers say his death could give Ndayishimiye more independence.
Described by those who know him as more open-minded than many in the CNDD-FDD party, Ndayishimiye is not associated with the worst abuses of recent years.
But neither did he stand out as trying to rein in the violence that erupted after the 2015 election, when Nkurunziza won a third term that was seen by many as unconstitutional.
The violence that followed left 1,200 dead and sparked a refugee exodus. A UN commission later accused the government of gross abuses including summary executions, rape and torture.
Ndayishimiye is set to inherit a deeply isolated country, under sanctions and cut off by foreign donors, its economy and national psyche damaged by years of political violence and rights violations.
‘Competing powerful interests’
The Burundi Human Rights Initiative said Ndayishimiye’s appointment was a compromise between Nkurunziza and a small but powerful cabal of generals who control the levers of government.
The generals – who wanted a military man and a former comrade from their days as ethnic Hutu rebels fighting against the government during the civil war – chose Ndayishimiye.
The new president rose through the ranks during the war that ended in 2006 but is seen as being outside the governing party’s inner circle.
“He … will have to walk a dangerous tightrope in the high spheres of the ruling party,” the Burundi Human Rights Initiative said in an April report.
“Ndayishimiye will have to balance competing powerful interests, while ensuring that his own position remains safe.”
Richard Moncrieff, an expert with the International Crisis Group (ICG), said in principle, Nkurunziza’s death was “an opportunity for him to free himself”.
However, Carina Tertsakian of the Burundi Human Rights Initiative, said Ndayishimiye may still not have the “force or the power to stand up to” the generals, some of whom “have a lot of blood on their hands”.
If he wants to “introduce reforms, improve the human rights situation, end political violence … he risks hurtling into obstacles and reticence on the part of these generals,” she said.
A governing party official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Ndayishimiye was chosen because he was “faithful, ready to die for his party”.
“He will walk on eggshells in the first few years and will have to wait a long time before he gains some room for manoeuvre,” the official said.
Ndayishimiye had only just begun his studies at the University of Burundi when civil war broke out in 1993 – a conflict that would rage 13 years and cost at least 300,000 lives.
He was in his second year of law school when extremists from the Tutsi ethnic group massacred dozens of Hutu students on campus. The young Ndayishimiye only just escaped, putting down his pen to take up a gun.
During the war, he rose through the ranks of the CNDD-FDD. In 2003, he was the party’s main negotiator in ceasefire negotiations that ended the bloodshed.
In the post-war years, Ndayishimiye held several high-tier positions in government, including minister of the interior and public security, and as the president’s military and civilian chief of staff.
Those who know Ndayishimiye personally describe two sides to the man – one seemingly honest and open to consensus, but fiery and quick to temper.
“He’s a rather open-minded man, easy at first, who likes to joke and laugh with his friends,” said one friend, who spoke to AFP news agency on condition of anonymity.
“But unlike Nkurunziza … Evariste Ndayishimiye can be quite angry and gets carried away very easily, and risks becoming infuriated.”
One diplomat said Ndayishimiye displayed an “openness and honesty unlike other generals”.
“He was the best choice, but he will have a lot to do to encourage change and openness to the opposition, in a party dominated by an extremist, sectarian branch.”