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Remembering Burundi’s late President Pierre Nkurunziza

Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza has died aged 55 of ‘cardiac arrest’ the government announced yesterday.

The president had run Burundi for 15 years and was due to step down this August after having served three terms.

It is suspected, however, that his death may have been linked to coronavirus. President Nkurunziza attended a volleyball match on Saturday only to fall ill that same evening and was taken to hospital.

The government issued an official statement, saying that despite seeming to improve on Sunday, “surprisingly, on the morning of Monday, June 8, 2020, his health suddenly deteriorated and he had a heart attack”.

Speculation has arisen as to the nature of his death, as his wife is rumoured to have been flown to Nairobi, Kenya ten days ago having contracted coronavirus. No report has yet been confirmed.

Burundi’s government has refused to implement any lockdown measures against the coronavirus and recently expelled the World Health Organisation’s team working on Covid-19. As a result, little testing has been carried out, leaving great uncertainty as to the number of cases the country really has.

President Nkurunziza had been fiercely opposed to implementing social restrictions, allowing all public gatherings to go ahead including rallies and sports matches. His spokesperson defended his decision not to lockdown, saying “Burundi … has signed a special covenant with God, whether you believe it or not”.

The Legacy Left Behind

The President leaves behind a highly controversial record, once applauded internationally for his peacekeeping efforts, but now is accused on multiple accounts by the UN of human rights abuses.

The former footballer was elected into office in 2005 at the close of Burundi’s tumultuous civil war. Considered a war hero by his supporters, he had survived the persecution of Hutus in 1993 and joined the Forces for the Defence of Democracy, rising up to become their leader by the end of the decade.

During his first term as president, Nkurunziza was awarded no less than seven international awards for his peacebuilding. Under his leadership, the final rebel Hutu group was demobilised and his policies ensured the integration of Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups.

Nonetheless, the following ten years of his presidency were marred with allegations of state-sponsored violence, silencing of political enemies and abuses of power.

The now-exiled Burundi human rights group, Ligue Iteka, reported that between January and March of this year Nkurunziza oversaw 67 killings, 6 disappearances, 15 cases of gender-based violence, 23 cases of torture and 204 arbitrary arrests.

Indeed, UN Human Rights Chief Zeid Ra'ad al-Hussein has called Burundi one of the "most prolific slaughterhouses of humans in recent times".

It is difficult to obtain an accurate picture of what day-to-day life was like under President Nkurunziza’s governance, as all media is state-run and the country is now under diplomatic isolation.

In December 2016, however, a video went viral on Burundi social media which showed blood flowing into the gutter of a private property in the former capital, Bujumbura. A BBC investigation concluded that the property was owned by state security forces and was being run as a secret torture and detention centre.

In 2015, protesters took to the streets when Nkurunziza announced that he was planning to run for a third term, which up to that point had been in breach of Burundi’s constitution. The demonstrations were met with violence by police and the youth wing of Nkurunziza’s party, the infamous Imbonerakure.

Between 2015 and 2018, Burundi saw near continuous unrest as Nkurunziza’s political enemies staged coups and small-scale riots. None were enough to topple to the president from power, but after bowing to internal pressure, he announced in 2018 that his third would be his last term in office.

President Nkurunziza had intended to step down at the end of August. How far he would have actually stepped away from politics and the running of day-to-day affairs is unclear, however, as he was to become Burundi’s “supreme guide”.

Indeed, there were plans to give the president $500,000 as a gift on his new appointment and to receive a luxury villa from the state.

His death is to be marked with a seven-day period of mourning and a state funeral, but considering the mark he has left on his country, it may be difficult to tell whether tears will be real or forced.


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