On Monday, June 8, the President of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, pictured above, suddenly died at age 55. Here is a brief report on his life, time as president, and untimely death. He was a born-again Christian who is reported to have prayed a lot. His wife, Denise, became an ordained minister. He also loved football (soccer) and had his own team where he frequently played. In his youth he had been a physical education instructor.

During the 1993 to 2005 Burundi civil war, Pierre Nkurunziza, a Hutu, became the leader of the largest rebel faction fighting the Tutsi-led government. At that time there were 17 rebel groups opposing the Burundi government. His political party was called by its initials, CNDD-FDD, which stands for National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy. In 2005 his party won the most seats in the Burundi Parliament and he was appointed President. In 2010 he was re-elected in a general election.

According to the Arusha Agreement that ended the Burundi civil war, the president was allowed only two five-year terms. When the new election in 2015 came after his ten years in office, Nkurunziza stated that since he was elected by parliament in 2005 and not by a general election, his first election did not count towards the ten year limit. This set off country-wide unrest which was militarily suppressed with 1200 to 2000 people killed and up to 400,000 people fleeing the country. For this his regime was isolated by the international community.

During the 2015 election there was a coup attempt while Nkurunziza was out of the country attending a meeting in Dar es Salaam. He quickly returned and was able to defeat the coup. Nonetheless he never left Burundi again except for a short car ride across the border to meet with the Tanzanian president.

What would happen in the 2020 election? The first step was for Nkurunziza to have the constitution amended so that there would now be two seven year presidential terms and more importantly his first three terms would not count! Therefore he could continue to rule until 2034 by which time, if he wanted, he would have the constitution changed again.

To my amazement and that of the rest of the international community, Nzurunziza announced that he would not run for re-election in 2020. His party then selected retired general Evarste Ndayishimiye to be the CNDD-FDD candidate for president. The election was held on May 20 and Ndayishimiye won with 68% of the vote. He was supposed to take over the presidency from Nkurunziza in August.

As I describe in my June 5 Report from Kenya, see here, Burundi is in denial about Covid-19. Except for closing its borders, Burundi has not imposed any restrictions at all. Large campaign crowds assembled to hear the candidates, voting was done with no cautions, and so on. WHO officials who had criticized this were expelled. On May 28 Nkurunziza’s wife, Denise, was air evacuated to Nairobi for medical treatment for “an existing condition.” Sources in Nairobi, denied by Burundian officials, reported that her hospitalization was due to Covid-19. Note that she was evacuated from Burundi in a special unit used for people with contagious diseases.

Nkurunziza spent most of his time in up-country Burundi rather than in Bujumbura, its major city. He moved the capital from Bujumbura on Lake Tanganyika to Gitega in the middle of the country. On Saturday June 6 he was attending a volleyball game up-country where he began to feel sick. He was taken to the local hospital and on Monday, he died of “cardiac arrest” according to Burundian government officials. Nonetheless there is considerable speculation among the Burundian opposition and the international press that he died from Covid-19. The Burundian government then announced 7 days of mourning and imposed the type of restrictions that normally are used for Covid-19.

I had assumed that when Nzurunziza stepped down as president, he would remain the “power behind the throne.” With his early death, this is no longer possible. There are many factions in Burundian politics (like everywhere else) and there is a danger that Burundi would again descent into conflict and maybe chaos. The Burundian cabinet then decided that, rather than the vice-president taking over for only a few weeks, Ndayishimiye would take office on June 18. This change was then confirmed by the Burundian Supreme Court. He was inaugurated yesterday as planned. This has calmed the situation at least for the immediate future.


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David Zarembka

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