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Burundi’s president put politics before the pandemic. Now he’s dead

NEWS ANALYSIS

Pierre Nkurunziza, December 18 1964 – June 8 2020

On Saturday afternoon, Pierre Nkurunziza was attending a volleyball match. Shortly afterwards, Burundi’s famously all-action president — a regular on the football pitch, and so fond of athletic wear that he voted last month in an Adidas tracksuit — started to feel unwell. He was rushed to Fiftieth Anniversary Hospital in Karuzi.

On Sunday, according to a government statement, he started to feel better. He received some visitors at the hospital. But the next day, on Monday morning, he had a heart attack, after which his condition declined rapidly. Despite hours of frantic medical treatment, doctors were unable to revive him.

This is not how Nkurunziza planned to depart the presidency. In fact, he did not want to go at all. After fiddling the rules to give himself another term in 2015, he forced through constitutional amendments in 2018 that would have allowed him to stay on even longer. To do so, he had unleashed a wave of violence across the country, empowering and arming youth militias affiliated with the ruling party to torture, rape and kill on his behalf. 

Hundreds of thousands of Burundians fled their country. Most remain refugees.

But in a twist that appeared to take Nkurunziza by surprise, extreme violence does not earn people’s trust and respect — or their votes. So unpopular had he become that the generals and senior officials in his party laid down the law earlier this year. They told him that they could not risk him running again for president, because he would lose. Even if the entire electoral process was tilted in his favour, according to analysts.

This must have come as a blow to Nkurunziza’s famously fragile ego (three schoolgirls were once detained for doodling on a picture of the president’s face in their school books; two football administrators were once charged with “conspiracy against the president” after he suffered some tough tackles in a friendly match).

With few other options, the president reluctantly agreed to step down from office, but he did take steps to ensure an opulent and influential post-presidency. He secured for himself the title of “Paramount Leader, Champion of Patriotism and Leadership Core”, along with a golden handshake in excess of half a million dollars. The state would also pay him a salary for the rest of his life and give him a luxury villa.

Politics in the pandemic

The elections came and went on May 20. Nkurunziza’s successor Evariste Ndayishimiye — who, like Nkurunziza, came to prominence during Burundi’s civil war and is also fond of a tracksuit — won in a vote that was marred by accusations of irregularities. But the Constitutional Court on Thursday upheld the presidential election result. Nkurunziza was due to hand over power in the coming weeks. 

While Nkurunziza and his allies were playing politics, Burundi was thrust into another crisis — the Covid-19 pandemic. Unwilling to let the coronavirus interfere with the political transition, Nkurunziza’s administration chose to ignore the problem. It did not introduce any form of physical distancing. Political rallies continued, as did sports matches. The government even expelled the World Health Organisation after it questioned official statistics, which at the time claimed that there had been just 83 confirmed cases of the virus. Health workers in Burundi say that infection rates are far higher.

One of those confirmed cases is Denise Bucumi Nkurunziza, the president’s wife. She was airlifted to Kenya last week for treatment, accompanied by three bodyguards who had also tested positive.

The first lady’s status has fuelled speculation that Nkurunziza also had Covid-19. This has been reported as fact by some local media outlets, but has not been verified, and the government’s statement made no reference to the coronavirus.

Burundi has lost its Paramount Leader, Champion of Patriotism and Leadership Core. But perhaps it has gained an opportunity to finally react seriously to Covid-19; and, in Nkurunziza’s absence, a chance to overturn the rotten and violent political system over which he presided.

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Simon Allison
Simon Allison
Simon Allison is the Africa editor of the Mail & Guardian, and the founding editor-in-chief of The Continent. He is a 2021 Young Africa Leadership Initiative fellow.

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