Burundi president Pierre Nkurunziza dies of 'heart attack'

Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza. He died days before handing over. FILE PHOTO

What you need to know:

  • Burundians went to the ballot on May 20 in an election that fielded seven candidates.
  • The election marked the end of Nkurunziza's 15-year-long rule after his attempt to seek a third term led to riots and political unrest.

If you asked many people on the street of any of the East African capital, they would probably tell you that Pierre Nkurunziza was an election-stealing oppressor, who led a corrupt government of a poor country, but had the great heart to send his army to keep the peace in troubled Somalia.

But those who know Nkurunziza well, even intellectuals who are sympathetic to the opposition, say that the Burundian leader was a formidable politician.

True, they say, the playing ground was not level in the last election, which was nonetheless expected to mark the end of his authoritarian 15-year rule.


There have been fears of post-election violence and the potential for the further spread the coronavirus, which shrouded the democratic exercise.

His hand-picked man Evariste Ndayishimiye won the election marred by irregularities. The other main candidates was opposition figure, Agathon Rwasa.

Nkurunziza, Ndayishimiye and Rwasa were all rebel leaders during the 1993-2005 civil war and come from the Hutu majority group.

The ruling party garnered support through social welfare schemes, such as free maternal care, but has also been accused by human rights groups of regularly intimidating people into voting for them and using mass arrests to silence anti-government voices.

The country's economy is practically non-existent, and more than 90 percent of its people rely on subsistence farming, leaving them susceptible to climate shocks. More than 140 members of Rwasa's party were arrested since campaigning began on April 27, according to SOS Medias Burundi, a group of independent journalists.

Most foreign media outlets were barred from reporting inside Burundi. The government expelled a team of experts and the country's World Health Organisation representative after he raised concerns about large election rallies.

Regional election observers were also barred from monitoring Wednesday's election as the government said they would have to abide by 14-day quarantine protocols after entering the country.

Nkurunziza's government refused to cooperate with the International Criminal Court and the United Nations' human rights organisation. The Burundian diaspora, which generally aligns with the opposition, did not vote in the poll.


At a recent rally Ndayishimiye assuaged public concerns about the coronavirus

"Do not be afraid. God loves Burundi and if there are people who have tested positive, it is so that God may manifest his power in Burundi," he told supporters.

Ndayishimiye controls the ruling party's youth wing, known as the Imbonerakure, who act as a sort of quasi-police force, especially in rural areas. UN investigators have repeatedly pointed to the Imbonerakure as the perpetrators of brutal crackdowns, citing instances of summary executions, torture, sexual violence and mass arrests.

After Nkurunziza extended his mandate and ran again for president in 2015, the military and Imbonerakure quashed street protests. Over the next two years, at least 1,200 were killed in violence the UN says was mostly carried out by the state's various security forces. Almost all of the 400,000 people displaced by the violence remain in camps, mostly in Tanzania, where they are unable to vote.

"The human rights situation is catastrophic on two fronts," said Janvier Bigirimana, a Burundian lawyer and human rights activist living in exile in Belgium.

"First, opposition activists continue to experience all kinds of violence with total impunity. Second, the government of Burundi favoured the electoral campaign while sacrificing human lives in the face of the covid-19 pandemic." Nkurunziza adopted the title of "eternal supreme guide" of his ruling party two years ago.

He was assured a $530,000 (Sh56,2 million) parting gift as well as a luxury mansion, according to a law passed in his most recent term.

According to the country's constitution, the president of the legislature should take control of the government until the inauguration of Ndayishimiye, who won the election, scheduled for August 20.

The government's statement on Nkurunziza's death said he had been well enough on Saturday to assist during a volleyball match in his home district of Ngozi but was admitted to a hospital in a neighbouring district on Sunday. His condition improved Sunday night but took a sudden turn on Monday when he suffered a heart attack. In the lead-up to last month's election, Nkurunziza's government expelled Burundi's World Health Organisation representative after he raised concern about large election rallies. Burundi's number of confirmed covid-19 cases remains low at 83, but testing has been extremely limited.


Nkurunziza was fond of sports and was often pictured playing soccer with his country's national team. He largely, however, stayed within his offices, except during the campaign season when he commanded massive rallies across the small, landlocked nation.

Nkurunziza was described as a populist, much loved by the poor people on the countryside, but despised by the elite in the capital Bujumbura.

He generally hated Bujumbura, and spent little time there. Most of the time he was in the villages, digging and planting trees — especially avocado trees — with peasants.

His preferred attire was a tracksuit and sneakers. He had his designer suits too, but the tracksuits gave him the much-needed common touch.

The frequent sight of a track suit-clad Nkurunziza planting avocado trees earned him the nickname the “Avocado President”. Among the middle class, the nickname is often spat out with contempt.

Still recovering from a long war, most Burundians are poor. In Burundi, avocado is the most popular form of “butter” for the underclass. By planting the avocado, Nkurunziza has taken the most emotional route to the hearts of Burundi’s poor — through their stomachs.

He was also big on religion and spent more time praying than he did on the affairs of state. A born-again Christian, the president was always organising prayer meetings. Some of the prayers sessions would last up to 2am, according to sources. 


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