Nairobi – Burundi’s president Evariste Ndayishimiye replaced his prime minister and a top aide in a high-level political purge Wednesday after warning of a “coup” plot against him.
Security minister Gervais Ndirakobuca was sworn in before parliament as new premier, capping a day of high drama in the troubled central African nation.
He succeeds Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni, who was sacked along with Ndayishimiye’s civilian chief of staff General Gabriel Nizigama in the first major reshuffle at the top since the president took office a little over two years ago.
Lawmakers had approved the appointment of Ndirakobuca – a former chief of Burundi’s feared intelligence agency – in a unanimous 113-0 vote at a hastily called parliamentary session earlier Wednesday.
Ndayishimiye, a 54-year-old former army general, gave no reasons for Bunyoni’s dismissal, but last week he had warned of a coup plot against his regime.
“Do you think an army general can be threatened by saying they will make a coup? Who is that person? Whoever it is should come and, in the name of God, I will defeat him,” Ndayishimiye said at a meeting of government officials on Friday in the political capital Gitega.
The fate of Bunyoni, a former police chief and security minister who has long been a senior figure in the ruling CNDD-FDD party, was not immediately known.
Ndirakobuca, a 52-year-old father of eight, is among a number of Burundian officials accused of stoking violence against government opponents in a wave of deadly unrest in 2015 and remains under EU sanctions.
Ndayishimiye’s new chief of staff – a post sometimes described as a “super prime minister” – is Colonel Aloys Sindayihebura, who was in charge of the domestic branch of the National Intelligence Service.
Lawmakers had been called to attend the National Assembly session on Wednesday via urgent messages sent overnight on WhatsApp.
Analysts say a cabal of military leaders known as “the generals” wield the true political power in Burundi and the president himself had alluded to his isolation in a 2021 speech.
Ndayishimiye took power in June 2020 after his predecessor Pierre Nkurunziza died of what the Burundian authorities said was heart failure although there was widespread speculation he had succumbed to Covid.
He has been hailed by the international community for slowly ending years of Burundi’s isolationism under Nkurunziza’s chaotic and bloody rule.
But he has failed to improve its wretched record on human rights and the African Great Lakes nation of 12 million people remains one of the poorest on the planet.
Nkurunziza had launched the brutal 2015 crackdown on political opponents that left 1 200 people dead and made Burundi a global pariah.
The turmoil erupted after he had launched a bid for a third term in office, a move the opposition said was unconstitutional and violated a peace deal that ended the country’s bloody civil war in 2006.
The United States and the European Union had imposed sanctions over the unrest that also drove 400,000 people to flee the country, with reports of arbitrary arrests, torture, killings and enforced disappearances.
Burundi has been in the grip of an economic malaise since the 2015 unrest, with a lack of foreign exchange and shortages of basic goods such as fuel, certain foodstuffs, building materials and medicines.
As discontent mounts, Ndayishimiye on Friday repeated his promise to crack down on monopolies granted to leaders and those close to the government.
Earlier on Wednesday, Burundi’s trade ministry announced the easing of imports of maize, maize flour, sugar and cement in a statement on Twitter, dated September 6.
It follows the import of fuel by a state firm in the last ten days, meaning petrol stations can be filled up.
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In February, both Brussels and Washington resumed aid flows to the landlocked nation after easing the 2015 sanctions, citing political progress under Ndayishimiye.
Civil society groups have returned, the BBC is allowed to broadcast again and the European Union – Burundi’s largest foreign donor – has commended efforts to fight corruption.
But concerns over rights abuses remain.
Human Rights Watch in May described politically motivated murders and kidnappings by police and state-backed youth groups, while a UN inquiry last year characterised the situation as “disastrous”.
Since independence from Belgium in 1962, Burundi’s history has been littered with presidential assassinations, coups and ethnic massacres.
It was gripped by a brutal civil war from 1993 to 2006 between majority Hutus and minority Tutsis that left some 300 000 people dead, mainly civilians.