In what proves to be a controversial move, President Pierre Nkurunziza has renamed Burundi’s national landmarks to mark the country’s 57th independence on July 1. The landmarks include the presidential palace, national stadium, and main airport.

The country’s main stadium, which was named after Louis Rwagasore (one of the most respected historical figures in Burundi), is now officially called Heroes Stadium. The stadium is located in the former capital city of Bujumbura, used for hosting football matches and national day celebrations.

Rwagasore served as the country’s first prime minister but was assassinated before the country attained independence in 1962. His memory is celebrated in the country every October 13 and his portrait is also used in the currency. To compensate for the loss, President Nkurunziza has promised that the new parliament building in the planned capital city of Gitega will be named after Rwagasore.

The Burundi International Airport is now named after the country’s first democratically elected president, Merchior Ndadaye. A native of Hutu, Ndadaye ruled for just three months in 1993 before he was killed over his reforms which alienated the Tutsi-dominated army. His assassination provoked renewed violence and deadly ethnic crisis in Burundi, killing some 300,000 people. 

More so, the famous 3rd September Street in Bujumbura will now bear the name of Lt-Gen Adolphe Nshimirimana, a reportedly feared and ruthless operator and ally of President Nkurunziza. Nshimirimana served as a presidential adviser as well as a former head of the intelligence unit before he was killed in 2015, months after an attempted coup against the government.

The street’s former name marked the day former military leader Pierre Buyoya overthrew his cousin President Jean-Baptiste Bagaza in 1987. The Tutsi Buyoya assumed power with a promise to heal the frosty relationship between the ethnic groups but unleashed an oppressive campaign to deal with a Hutu uprising in 1988.

Meanwhile, the new $22 million presidential palace – a gift from China – was renamed after King Ntare Rushatsi. The legendary King is considered to be the founder of the Burundi kingdom in the 1500s.

The extensive renaming exercise was meant to “remind Burundians of their history … (and) also to remove names that emerge from betrayal and bad behaviour brought in by colonialism,” President Nkurunziza said in his Independence-Day speech.

However, critics have argued that the move was meant to erase the contribution of members of the minority Tutsi community, especially considering the “betrayal” speech by the 54-year-old leader, whose father was a Catholic Hutu connected with the royal family

Burundi has been beset by ethnic tensions between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority since the country gained independence from Belgium.

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