Emma Emeozor [email protected], @Emekaili

Burundi is one of the African countries where the majority are victims of abject poverty fuelled by underdevelopment and infrastructure deficit even as the ruling class live in affluence. The decision of the country’s parliament to approve a ridiculous benefit package for the president ahead of his retirement in May is a clear indication that those in position of authority are insensitive to the plight of the people.

Last week, the parliament in a surprise move, announced President Pierre Nkurunziza will be entitled to a luxury villa built with public funds in the location of his choice within five years, a one-off allocation of one billion Burundian francs” ($530,000), benefits equivalent to those of a serving vice-president for seven years after he steps down and a lifetime salary equal to that of a lawmaker. Also, he will be conferred with the title of ‘Supreme leader.’

The president will be quitting power after fifteen years in office. He said he will step down in to pave way for the election of a new leader. Though he spent fifteen consecutive years in office, it shows that he does not want to be seen as one of the sit-tight African leaders. A spokesman for the presidency, Jean Claude Karerwa Ndenzako reportedly tweeted that the Cabinet took the decision to make Nkurunziza “Paramount Leader, Champion of Patriotism and Leadership Core.”

There is no doubt that the president deserves applause for allaying the fears of the opposition and critics that the 2018 constitutional amendment that extended the presidential tenure from five years to seven years was meant to prolong his stay in office.

But the president should not be honoured at the detriment of the poor people of Burundi who are struggling to survive. Caution must be taken when spending the tax payer’s money. Burundi is one of the poorest countries in Africa.

It is unimaginable that a country that was “ranked ranked 180 out of 186 in the last Human Development Index” is lavishing such huge amount of money on a president who has been severally accused of amassing wealth while in office.

Of course, Nkurunziza may have ruled the country to the best of his ability. He believes the country witnessed development and growth during his reign. This is even as critics say he was undemocratic, brutal, vindictive and corruption thrived under his administration.

Whatever be Nkurunziza’s personal assessment of his performance vis-à-vis the assessment made by his opponents is immaterial when it comes to the issue of how the nation’s common wealth is managed.  The action of the lawmakers is not only an abuse of power but a threat to the stability of the country’s economy.  It is a dangerous precedence that must be discouraged.

What the lawmakers have failed to tell the international community is what the constitution says about the president’s benefits upon retirement. Also, the lawmakers have failed to make public the assets of the president. The question begging for an answer is: has the president declared his assets to determine if he has abused his office as alleged by his opponents.

The manner the lawmakers rushed to pass the bill that gave nod to the severance package is worrisome. It is scandalous. It seems the lawmakers did not think beyond their nose. How could lawmakers who should have on their finger tips the official data on the state of the economy and the general condition of living be so abrasive in taking decision that shows they are nothing but sycophants.

A report by the United Nations World Food Programme said 65 percent of the population lives in poverty and 50 percent of the country is food-insecure. In his desperate effort to justify the campaign for the acceptance of the campaign for the mouth-watering package for the president, the Minister for Justice Aimee-Laurentine Kanyana drew a comparison between a president who was elected through the ballot box and those leaders who came to power through coup d’état.

He said: “A president who came to power via the simple consensus of a group of politicians does not have the same regard as one who was democratically elected.”

Interestingly, the bill that approved the severance package was approved by 98 lawmakers. Only two lawmakers were courageous to oppose it. What a wacky show! What Kanyan may have failed to realise is that Burundi has just began a process of democratic journey that will inspire many emerging young politicians to show interest in the governance of the country. Put differently, more presidents will emerge after Nkurunziza’s exit. Kanyan and his co-travelers may have to tell the public for how long will Burundians bear the cost of such rip off? Or will the presidential severance package being given to Nkurunziza be subject to review after a new president had emerged?

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It is instructive that Nkurunziza is an ordained pastor who claims to be a true servant of God. He preaches the gospel to those who care to listen to him. He is among African clerics who believe in the power of feet washing as demonstrated by Jesus. It is therefore an irony that Nkurunziza (the man of God) who washes the feet of poor Burundians’ should turn around to steal the ‘bread’ of the same poor people.

By accepting the severance package as announced, he has betrayed poor Burundians. More worrisome is his misstep in the House of God. A true servant of the Lord will not succumb to a mundane honour that will increase the poverty in the land. The president had said he was ordained by God to rule Burundi. Nobody doubts him. But what may be hard to believe is any claim that God asked him to loot the country by overt or covert means.

Therefore, the severance package as announced has only put to test the integrity of the president. It is unimaginable how a president who has not only professed strong faith in God but insists that he is God’s messenger will happily accept such severance package. Could his claim that he is a messenger of God be a hoax?

Nkurunziza must resist the temptation and reject the package. He must prove that he sincerely identifies himself with the poor masses, he must be courageous to tell the lawmakers and his ministers to withdraw the package as announced.  At 55, he must show good example that other African leaders can emulate, especially the young emerging political leaders.

Undoubtedly, the severance package if not reviewed and downsize, it will be a source of political friction in the near future. Today, Nkurunziza’s party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) is in party. But there is no guarantee that it will always be in power. As politics evolve in the country, the opposition is likely to clinch victory someday. Of course new parties are likely to emerge too.

Will members of CNDD-FDD allow a president that is not a member of the party go home with the same package? Will the opposition accept it if the CNDD-FDD call for a review of the package after Nkurunziza has been so honoured? What is the guarantee that Burundi will continuously ascend the ladder of economic development and growth such that it will not experience the paucity of funds to doll out lavish packages to outgoing presidents?

Nkurunziza has a strong control of the country’s political machinery. It is an open secret that he is retiring reluctantly following pressure from various quarters and mindful of the sad history of the events that led to the internecine civil war in the country.

It is clear that the president is retiring to become the godfather of Burundi’s politics. Who becomes the next president will be determined by him. Also, who occupies ministerial position(s) and the rest of official positions in government will be determined by him.

It is for this reason that political sycophants have played up the campaign of a dubious honour for a man who is retiring to become the masquerade behind the throne. The lawmakers, ministers and the rest of the praise singers are using the severance package to warm their way to the heart of the strong man.

The situation in Burundi is not different from that in many African countries. The lack of caution on the part of political office holders remains a bane and proffering solution to it requires the will power of the people to stand up to the challenge. Political office holders care not if sapping the country dry is what they need to become self sufficient in life. They use all means to empty the coffer of government just as they launder the money stolen in foreign countries.

Interestingly, no African leader readily admits he is corrupt. Of course, the word corruption has defied meaning in the lexicon of Africa’s politics to the extent that glaring corrupt practices are considered as a way of life.

When the Parliament of Burundi announced Nkurunziza’s severance package, the thinking among observers was that ant-corruption advocates and particularly the African Union (AU) and other sub-regional bodies will express concern and call the lawmakers to order. But they have remained mute.

It may be argued that any external intervention is interference in the internal affairs of the country. Promoters of this argument must know that the survival of Burundi as a nation should be of paramount concern to all African countries. The calamitous result of the 1993 to 2005 civil war was suffered not only by Burundians. Neighbouring countries suffered it as well.

As Nkurunziza bows out in May, the future of Burundi’s politics remains dicey. Therefore, the lawmakers must avoid any action that could overheat the political arena. Certainly, popular opinion is opposed to the severance package. It is in the overall interest of the country to review it now.