New president faces monumental tasks

Burundi's presidential election on Friday marked an important milestone in a country that has been beset by 12 years of civil war, but extreme poverty, lingering ethnic divisions and continuing low-level insurgency remain barriers to lasting peace.

These are just some of the challenges President-elect Pierre Nkurunziza - who was until his election leader of the Conseil national pour la défense de la democratie-Forces pour la défense de la democratie (CNDD-FDD) - will have to overcome if Burundi is to consolidate the democratic progress that brought him to power.

Foremost among these problems are the issues of security and poverty. In a news conference on 2 August in Nairobi, Kenya, Nkurunziza said these two issues would be a priority, which he would tackle by first trying to bring the rebel Front national de liberation (FNL) into the political fold through negotiation.

The degree to which he will succeed, where others have failed, is uncertain. What seemed clear was his conviction that the FNL's ethnic ideology had run its course, and that it was looking for an exit from the political wilderness. Yet the FNL remains blinkered, wanting only to negotiate with what it sees as the Tutsi-dominated national army, which, it says, holds real sway in the country.

Despite talks held in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, between the FNL leader, Agathon Rwasa, and the head of the transitional government, Domitien Ndayizeye, the rebel group is still carrying out sporadic attacks.

Nkurunziza, a Hutu - like many in the FNL - has been critical of Rwasa's group. In Nairobi he spoke of the irony of a rebel group wanting guarantees against perceived Tutsi excesses, while refusing to give guarantees to others. The only guarantee against any excesses, Nkurunziza said, was democracy.

SECURITY, POLITICAL CONCERNS

While remaining outside the political process, the FNL has expanded its area of military operations from Bujumbura Rural to the northern provinces of Kayanza and Bubanza: armed robbery, car-jacking, kidnapping, torture and murder have been its stock in trade; indiscriminate nightly shootings are a common feature of life in Bujumbura Mairie and its environs; rural dwellers live in fear, while city residents are demanding greater police protection at night.

"Our security is threatened - we don't know what to do," Monica Ntibazonkiza, an internally displaced mother of five, living in Kanyosha, Bujumbura Rural Province, told IRIN. "Rebels are here with us - we are always on the run."

If Nkurunziza succeeds in bringing the FNL into the political process, security may improve. Analysts said one way of doing this would be to establish a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for which provision was made in the 2002 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi.

Balancing justice with reconciliation would be a major challenge to the Nkurunziza government; the commission would need impress indelibly on the public psyche that four decades of impunity for crimes had come to an end, while the government and the commission would have to reassure the Tutsi minority that a 'Hutu' majority government would not seek retribution.

"If they are not careful, this commission is going to bring about more problems - I hope they won't use it to revenge the Tutsi," a politician requesting anonymity told IRIN on 10 August.

He said public confidence in the commission and the government could be gained if there were no ethnic profiling, and if the commission started its probe with the CNDD-FDD members, who were regarded as rebels before they joined the political process. The scenario that these government officials would be questioned by the commission was not unlikely if the government were keen on establishing its democratic credentials.

However, the process might be fraught with feelings of injustice unless the examination reached back to include all acts of violence since independence from Belgium in 1962. In doing so, it was highly probable that great public interest would be focused on the 1993 assassination of Burundi's first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye. The killing sparked violence and mass retribution against Tutsi civilians by Hutus convinced that Ndadaye's death was ethnically motivated. In turn, the Tutsi-dominated army suppressed the Hutu majority. An estimated 300,000 people died in the ensuing 12-year civil war.

The CNDD-FDD's new president, Karenga Ramadhani, has said national reconciliation is a high priority if Burundians are to give their loyalty to the nation before their ethnic group. Analysts have said the degree to which the new government allows space for all political, ethnic and civic affiliations would largely determine the degree of success or failure of national reconciliation.

"I hope Burundi would be peaceful and that order will be restored, and that the press and civil society organisations be given enough space to express themselves and practice real democracy," Kigenza Abdul, a Burundian human rights activist, said.

Some politicians have apparently already hedged their bets with the CNDD-FDD, which won the recent communal and parliamentary polls. Large numbers of educated Tutsis have been joining the CNDD-FDD to secure political posts, to the chagrin of some CNDD-FDD and other hardliners. Regardless of these feelings, a legal proviso compels all political parties to maintain at least a 60-40 representation of the country's two main ethnic groups in their leadership.

"FRODEBU has hardened its stance and is said to be behind a number of pamphlets portraying their CNDD-FDD political opponents as people who have been sold out to Burundi and Rwanda's Tutsi elite," Willy Nindorera, a Burundian political analyst, said.

SOCIOECONOMIC CHALLENGES

Despite the misgivings of hardliners, Nkurunziza said during his Kenya visit that the CNDD-FDD would seek technically qualified people, regardless of political or ethnic affiliation, who could help run the country. He will need this if he is to help heal the nation's soul and undertake the monumental challenges of rebuilding the infrastructure and health and education systems - building blocks that could provide the platform for economic revival in a country the UN Development Programme classifies as one of the poorest in Africa.

Most Burundians are more concerned about their own economic and social wellbeing than political affairs, so Nkurunziza might have little choice but to concentrate on these issues, after security.

"It is incredibly difficult to make ends meet - the country is in a very serious economic crisis," Gloria Niyongere, a Burundi businesswoman, said in the capital, Bujumbura.

Since the outbreak of war in 1993, government salaries have only risen by 20 percent, and most university graduates earn just US $40 a month; housing costs have shot up, especially with the presence of the UN Mission in Burundi, and even in the poor suburbs of the capital rents have outstripped the average income of less than $5 a month.

Petroleum companies have been trying to organise strikes to pressurise the government into raising the fixed price of fuel, but this would increase commodity prices, hitting the poor hardest. A devastating drought in the north of the country has severely reduced agricultural output, compelling the transitional government to declare a state of emergency in several provinces during 2005.

Corruption adds to the country's economic woes, fuelling poverty and threatening to erode state security.

"Money talks in Burundi now - you cannot get services in any government office unless you buy bread," was how Chuma Jean, a middle-aged Burundian civil servant, described the level of bribery to IRIN.

Officials and agents in the customs and finance departments, and even in the president's office, are accused of blatantly looting public funds.

"You don't have to open your luggage - just give me the rest of your holiday budget, then you can pass - with money, here you can easily get what you want and very fast," a female immigration officer at Bujumbura airport said on 7 June.

Crushing these vices will be as important to Burundi as the restoration of democracy and security.