Democracy: The Burundi avocado, Ugandan cows

Wednesday January 29 2020

On the weekend, something rare in our neck of the woods happened in Burundi. Burundi’s ruling CNDD-FDD, chose its secretary-general, Gen Evariste Ndayishimiye, as its presidential candidate in the upcoming election in May.

President Pierre Nkurunziza, in power since 2005, will step down in May after 15 years on the throne. In 2015, Nkurunziza fiddled with the Constitution so he could stand again, plunging his country into a violent crisis that has killed thousands, sent nearly 500,00 fleeing as refugees, and ruined its fragile economy.

Because he seemed ready to burn the country down to remain president, hardly anyone believed it when Nkurunziza last year started making noises about leaving in 2020.

Sources in the know say he was partly exhausted running a basket case, but that the Burundi generals, who have the kind of influence on the presidency than their Ugandan peers can’t even dream of, drew a line in the sand. They want the European Union and other sanctions against Burundi to end, to end the country’s isolation, and to get its economy back on the rails. For that to happen, Nkurunziza had to leave.

The Burundians have treated Nkurunziza, handing him a $530,000 award for his democratic gesture and service, a luxury villa, and handing the grand title of “Supreme Guide of Patriotism”, an upgrade from his current “Eternal Supreme Guide” when he leaves office in four months’ time.

As Nkurunziza began to let go of the reins of power after 15 years, over the same weekend, our ruling NRM party met and doubled down, endorsing President Yoweri Museveni as its sole candidate for the 2021 election – which would see him begin his run towards, at a minimum, a 40-year rule.


As I reflected on these events, some naughty but clever friends texted me on Nkurunziza’s moves, with one saying he has actually been taking him much more seriously than most people. And, interestingly, it’s for exactly the moniker “Avocado Man”, some people use to mock Nkurunziza.

Nkurunziza is a very Born-Again Christian, and his wife, Denise, even more so. She became the first First Lady in Africa (if not the world) to be ordained a minister of a church. Her official title is “Her Excellency Reverend Pastor Denise Nkurunziza.”

While other African Big Men travel the countryside haranguing farmers about when and what to plant, Nkurunziza tours their gardens. He frequently kneels in peasants’ gardens, praying with the harvest – potatoes, tomatoes, pineapples – in his hands.

Nkurunziza spends a lot of his time in the countryside tilling the land with a hoe. His obsession has been promoting the farming of avocado, hence the “Avocado Man” nickname.

And here is where one of my friends handed Nkurunziza biscuits. He said; “This Nkurunziza man requires a deeper look. The day he started the avocado tree planting campaign is when I started rethinking him.
“Planting avocado trees does not get any international big wigs fawning. But it is crucial for the well-being of ordinary Burundians.”

It led us to an unexpectedly lively discussion about how what a president does as a hobby or private economic activity, can be an indicator of whether an African president will leave office within a reasonable period of time when his constitutional term ends, or whether he will cling on for a presidency for life.

Thus, which president is more likely to leave earlier, the one who raises cattle like Museveni; grows avocadoes, vegetables, and other crops, like Nkurunziza; or is in real estate and industry? Most of the arguments said the odds were higher for a maize and avocado growing president will leave earlier.

A president who grows maize or pineapples, works from a more refined sense of when they should be grown, and when they will be harvested and taken to market. They have a deep sense of the beginning and end of seasons. And crops grow, mature, and are planted again within fairly short periods (weeks, and at most months). A maize-growing president, by the very cycle of the crop, has term limit built into his/her psyche.

A cowboy president, on the other hand, lives a different reality. The lifespan of cattle is 18 to 22 years. Where a maize grower is working with 75-120 days, the cattle keeper is thinking 20 years. And he can keep milking, milking, and milking the same cow for years, developing a close affinity to it and even giving it a name like “Mulungi”. No potato or tomato farmer will give their crop a name like, say, “Violet.”

The maize-growing president is, therefore, likely to leave power early, than the cowboy, who develops a close affinity and a long attachment to power just like with his cattle.
If Burundi ever becomes democratic, it will have the avocado to thank. I am not yet ready to blame the Ugandan cow, though.

Mr Onyango-Obbo is curator of the “Wall of Great Africans” and publisher of explainer site Twitter@cobbo3