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Burundi's New But Familiar PM

FILE: Image of new Burundi PM Gervais Ndirakobuca, taken 11.2.2021

Burundi's president has put 52-year-old Gervais Ndirakobuca in the nation's prime minister post, replacing Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni, a former police chief who was appointed by Evariste Ndayishimiye shortly after he came to power two years ago.

Gervais Ndirakobuca, Burundi's newly appointed prime minister, has survived high-level purges and US and EU sanctions for his role in the country's violent 2015 political crisis to rise to the top of government.

With stints as deputy director of the police, head of the feared intelligence service and most recently security minister, the former rebel commander has been a key player in Burundi's government for years.

He is a hardliner in the CNDD-FDD, the main Hutu rebel group that went on to become a political party after the end of the brutal 13-year civil war and has ruled ever since.

"Unlike Bunyoni, who is very cold, calculating and cautious, General Ndirakobuca is a man who does not hesitate to cut to the quick, quite brutal," an official in the presidency who has worked with both men told AFP.

Burundian rights activist Pacifique Nininahazwe said there was little difference between the two men, tweeting: "Six of one and half a dozen of the other."

During the 2015 crisis, which erupted when former president Pierre Nkurunziza made a bid for a third term, sparking protests, Ndirakobuca was among the officials accused by Brussels and Washington of stoking violence against regime opponents.

He was sanctioned by both the EU and the United States as well as several other European countries, with Brussels accusing him of "acts of violence, acts of repression and violations of international human rights law against protesters".

The unrest led to the deaths of 1,200 people and sent 400,000 others fleeing the country, with reports of arbitrary arrests, torture, killings and enforced disappearances.

But the sanctions did little to stop the rise of Ndirakobuca, whose nickname "Ndakugarika" directly translates to "I will hang you dead and stiff" in the Kirundi language.

When Nkurunziza died suddenly in June 2020, his successor Ndayishimiye promoted Ndirakobuca, then intelligence chief, to the post of security minister, with a portfolio that also included the interior ministry.

That cabinet featured some of Burundi's most controversial hardline figures, several of whom had sanctions hanging over their heads, including Bunyoni.

Late last year, the US government lifted its sanctions against top CNDD-FDD officials, including Ndirakobuca, citing a fall in violence and reforms under Ndayishimiye. EU sanctions on the officials remain.

Since then, both the EU and the United States have resumed aid flows to the landlocked nation of 12 million people, despite campaigners warning that the government's rights record was still grim.