'Not just where people kill each other’: the man hoping to transform Burundi

With an election looming, Dieudonné Nahimana shares his vision for unity in a country scarred by ethnic violence

When civil war erupted in Burundi in 1993, like many children, the teenage Dieudonné Nahimana fled to the capital, Bujumbura, and ended up destitute.

He became the de facto leader of a group of 40 street children, surviving in the shelter of abandoned buildings. It was an experience that drove his ambition higher, sowing the seeds for a nation-building project and his decision to run for president.

Burundi goes to the polls on 20 May and Nahimana, standing as an independent, has a manifesto of unity.

“In our country political parties have developed out of ethnic divisions,” he says. “But the people helping my campaign come from all ethnic groups. Together, we are showing it’s time to value life in Burundi.”

(March 9, 1961)  Independence

Burundi was granted independence from colonial Belgian rule. 

(March 9, 1962)  Constitutional monarchy

Tutsi King Mwambutsa IV Bangiriceng established a constitutional monarchy comprising equal numbers of Hutus, who make up about 85% of the population, and Tutsis, 14% (fewer than 1% are indigenous Twa).

(March 9, 1965)  One-party state

The assassination of Hutu prime minister Pierre Ngendandumwe set in motion a series of assassinations, revolts, coups and regional instability that ended with Burundi established as a republic and one-party state. 

(March 9, 1972)  Hutu rebellion crushed

A Hutu rebellion is brutally crushed leaving 200,000 to 300,000 dead. 

(March 9, 1987)  Military coup

150,000 people die in unrest after a military coup.

(March 9, 1993)  Civil war

Burundi's civil war erupts after the assassination of Hutu leader Melchior Ndadaye. Years of violence between Hutu rebels and the Tutsi army claim 300,000 civilian lives. 

(March 9, 2005)  Peace deal

Most of the warring factions sign the peace deal dividing key government and military posts between Hutu and Tutsi. Pierre Nkurunziza, a former Hutu rebel leader, is elected president.

(March 9, 2015)  Attempted coup

Protests break out after it's announced that President Nkurunziza would seek a third term in office. An attempted coup on 13 May fails to depose Nkurunziza when he is abroad and he returns to purge his government and arrest the coup leaders. In July he wins the election. Protests continue, however, 300 people die and more than 200,000 flee the country.

(March 9, 2018) Nkurunziza says he will step down

In May Nkurunziza was anointed as "eternal supreme guide" by the ruling party. But by June he announced that he would not seek another term and step down when his current term ends in 2020.

Too often life has seemed to hold low worth in Burundi, whose history has been marked by occupation, civil war and intermittent violence between ethnic Hutus and Tutsis. Last month more than 6,000 bodies were found in six mass graves in Karusi province, the largest discovery since the government began excavations in January in a nationwide programme intended to help the east African country come to terms with its past.

Nahimana lost his father and 18 relatives in the civil war and genocide which left 300,000 people dead. He believes ethnic disputes can finally be set aside in the election for a leader to replace President Pierre Nkurunziza, who has held office since the conflict ended in 2005.

“This time the elections are going to focus on development and stability of the country, not on fixing the same issues that have been around for a long time,” Nahimana says. “We always knew this election would be the time for a new generation who want something other than the cycle of retribution. For nearly 20 years we’ve been training young people for decision-making positions and we knew they would be ready.”

More than 6,000 young people have come through his New Generation leadership programme. They work as government advisers, bank managers, church leaders and in other influential positions, all ready to support his campaign and government, says Nahimana, whose family share his home with approximately 80 former street children.

He believes Burundi is ripe for transformation, especially as the 1993 peace accord process of balancing ethnic groups in the army – intended to prevent Hutu rebellions against Tutsi leadership – has now been completed.

Yet political violence has persisted; in 2015 protesters clashed with police over Nkurunziza’s announcement that he would prolong his presidency and tensions erupted again before a referendum on allowing his fourth term. About 400,000 people have fled the country and hundreds have been killed. The UN, which has accused the government and its supporters of crimes against humanity, has warned of serious human rights violations.

A mural showing drummers and dancers and portraits of Burundi’s presidents in the capital Bujumbura.
A mural in the capital Bujumbura, with portraits of Burundi’s presidents in the top right. Photograph: Phil Moore/AFP

After Nkurunziza’s surprise announcement in January that he would step down, the ruling CNDD-FDD party named General Evariste Ndayishimiye as its candidate. His main rival is former rebel leader Agathon Rwasa, standing for the National Freedom Council (CNL). A candidate winning more than 50% in a first round of voting takes the presidency in Burundi, where approximately 5 million of the population of 12 million are expected to vote.

About 70% of voters are under 35. “The majority of those young people are not in a political party. We are confident we have the backing of young people who are tired of the violence,” says Nahimana, adding that his government would be collaborative.

“We are not trying to be the next government in the same way. The government of Burundi has existed in the same way since the 1960s – militarily-led to manage crises – with almost all of the budget and focus on fixing these crises.”

If he wins: “The number one priority for us will be to create an environment for peace and healing, because Burundians have been wounded by what happened in the past.

“When you live in an environment where you do not know if you will be alive the next day, or if civil war will erupt in five or 10 years, you cannot plan for the future.”

He claims he would tackle rampant corruption and remove barriers to young people’s involvement in managing the country – and it would rapidly develop agriculture, he says, pointing to Rwanda as an example of a country with a similar size population and history whose successful development shows what can be done. “In 1996 they were far behind Burundi but they developed quickly using just the resources they had.”

Spectators look on as Truth and Reconciliation Commission officials inspect remains at a mass grave in Mwaro, Burundi.
Spectators look on as officials inspect remains at a mass grave in Mwaro, Burundi. Photograph: Renovat Ndabashinze/Anadolu

As the national Truth and Reconciliation Commission has worked to repair rifts, the government has recognised Nahimana’s “healing memories” project, bringing together the genocide’s young victims and perpetrators. “We raised them to live as one community without considering where they came from.”

“What I went through [with my father’s murder] taught me how others see Burundi. When you experience injustice and learn to forgive, you realise you don’t need to avenge another person but you need to take revenge on the mindset and create a new ideology that brings people together.

“Because we are known for our peace and reconciliation work, the media does not attack us,” he says, adding that while there can be no guarantee elections will be free and fair, so far his campaign has observed the electoral commission is doing its job. But protection of the human rights of all Burundians would be an immediate priority – with support from the international community – and there would be an early discussion on rejoining the International Criminal Court, which, in 2017, Burundi became the first country in the world to leave.

“Burundi is not just another problem. We want to be people who can make a contribution … [in world forums]. People will be surprised to realise this is not just a country of people who kill each other but one whose people can contribute to humanity,” he says.


Jo Griffin

The GuardianTramp

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