Burundi Faces End of 15-Year Rule of ‘Paramount Leader’

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(Bloomberg) --

Burundi’s ruling party named its candidate for May presidential elections, days after confirming that incumbent Pierre Nkurunziza plans to step down after 15 years by awarding him the status of Paramount Leader and Champion of Patriotism.

The East African nation is on edge as the elections approach, with residents fearing that Nkurunziza’s departure may spark clashes between rebel commanders vying to succeed him. One of the world’s poorest countries, Burundi has experienced two genocides since independence from Belgium in 1962. Some of its past crises spilled over into its neighbors, including Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo.

Burundi Faces End of 15-Year Rule of ‘Paramount Leader’

About a dozen soldiers were killed near the Rwandan border late last year, an attack the government blamed on the neighbor.

The party on Sunday announced that Evariste Ndayishimiye, a retired army general who currently serves as its secretary-general, will stand as its candidate. Thousands of party supporters took to the streets to celebrate the announcement. The previous day, Nkurunziza had told the delegates that “God has already made his choice.”

While five other political parties have said they’ll participate, the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy - Forces for the Defense of Democracy, formerly a rebel group, is likely to dominate the vote. Foreign observers won’t be allowed and the government will fund the vote with 70 billion Burundian francs ($37 million) in state funds and mandatory contributions from civil servants, Senate President Reverien Ndikuriyo said last week.

“This is not a football match that needs supporters,” Ndikuriyo said. “No observers are needed.”

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The government has become increasingly isolated following Nkurunziza’s suppression of protests against his push to seek a third mandate in 2015. Most independent media and civil-society groups have been crushed, according to Human Rights Watch. Dozens of foreign non-government organizations left after they had to reapply for permission to operate in the country and comply with a new requirement introduced last year to list the ethnic composition of their staff.

Constitutional changes in 2018 that boosted the president’s powers and enabled Nkurunziza to stay in office until 2034 fueled speculation that he might stay. He’s also President of the Elders, a position above the secretary-general of the ruling party.

However, in December he reiterated an earlier pledge to step down this year. And, last week, lawmakers passed a bill granting any democratically elected president the equivalent of $500,000 upon retiring from office, as well as six cars, a house built in a location of his or her choosing and a lifetime monthly salary.

If he steps down, Nkurunziza will be the country’s only living former democratically elected president. Burundi’s other democratically elected president, Melchior Ndadaye, was bayoneted to death by putschists three months after winning a 1993 vote. Three other former presidents who are still alive aren’t eligible because they came to power through a coup or through negotiations.

A separate law was approved last week to elevate Nkurunziza to the status of Paramount Leader and Champion of Patriotism. Two years ago, the ruling party declared him a Visionary.

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