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Ex-Hutu Rebel Nkurunziza Becomes Burundi's New President

  • Raymond Thibodeaux

Burundi's parliament voted overwhelmingly Friday in favor of Pierre Nkurunziza as the country's new president. He was unopposed, but needed to win at least a two-thirds parliamentary majority.

Mr. Nkurunziza, whose former Hutu rebel group was swept into power in national elections last month, will serve a five-year term.

In the turbulent central African nation of seven million people, being president is a hazardous career choice, especially for ethnic Hutus. The country's three previous Hutu presidents were all overthrown by the Tutsi-controlled military. The last one was assassinated in 1993, which sparked the country's 12-year civil war, in which fighting between the ethnic Hutu majority and the once-ruling Tutsi minority killed up to 300,000 people.

Mr. Nkurunziza, in his parliamentary speech a day before the vote, vowed to unify the country and end the Hutu-Tutsi ethnic rivalry that has plagued Burundi.

"The blood that was shed during the civil war … should serve as a lesson," he told the parliament. "We must discard the old methods of exclusion, favoritism and bad governance," he said.

Jan Van Eck, a political analyst for the Institute for Security Studies in South Africa, has spent the past 11 years in Burundi.

He says President Nkurunziza's government has several difficult hurdles ahead.

"I think, the government has a good chance to bring about durable stability in Burundi, if it does a number of things: Complete the peace process by negotiating with the remaining Hutu rebellion - the new president has already indicated that he's willing to do that," he said. "Secondly, if the new government, in spite of its vast majority, is willing to be inclusive in appointing people from other parties to the government. Thirdly, whether he will actually implement the process by which truth, reconciliation and justice can be achieved. And, the last one would be delivering benefits to ordinary Burundian civilians."

Many Burundians, especially the country's Tutsi minority, are anxious to see whether their new leader will open the political process to all interests.

Appollonaire Gahungu, the former spokesman for Major Pierre Buyoya, a Tutsi rebel leader who became interim president during the first years of Burundi's transitional government, says inclusive politics is a major challenge for the new president.

"Of course, there is that uncertainty, or that curiosity, shared by all the Burundians to know how President Nkurunziza is going to change the political system. But, they are filled with expectation and hope that their future is going to be brighter," he said.

Mr. Nkurunziza's election nearly completes a four-year peace process to end Burundi's civil war. Local elections in the country's 16 provinces, to be held in September, will mark the end of Burundi's transitional period.

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