Man of faith or an oppressor?

Burundi’s Nkurunziza, who openly professed faith in Christ, came under sharp criticism for the manner in which he secured a third term and how he dealt with opponents

As far as critics are concerned, the legacy of Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza may have been sullied by various human rights abuses during his 15-year tenure. But among Christians, he will be remembered as a leader who had an unwavering faith in Christ.

The former sports teacher, university lecturer, rebel, football fanatic and born-again Christian succumbed to a heart attack at a hospital in Karuzi, eastern Burundi, on June 8. Meanwhile, his wife, Denise Bucumi Nkurunziza, is receiving treatment at the Aga Khan University Hospital in Nairobi for an underlying condition reportedly after testing positive for Covid-19.

Burundi state officials said Mr Nkurunziza was admitted in hospital on June 6 after complaining of feeling unwell. He started to improve but then suffered cardiac arrest on Monday; efforts to revive him were unsuccessful. The president was scheduled to step down in August and hand over power to his handpicked ally, Evariste Ndayishimiye, who won in elections held last month.

Nkurunziza, 55, is described by those close to him as “religious, cool and a gentleman devoid of religious fundamentalism”. As president, he had his own football team, Hallelujah FC – named in line with his Christian conviction – for which he scored regularly playing in the striker position.

“When I’m in church, I pray and devote myself exclusively to God. And when I’m in politics, I do the opposite while at the same time acknowledging that God is everywhere,” he once said.

Every year, he and his wife organised a week-long national prayer retreat during which they preached to thousands and occasionally washed the feet of the poor. The ecumenical prayers brought together Burundians from all walks of life and have always been attended by the country’s high and mighty. In December 2017 the prayer retreat was held in the province of Kayanza, the objective being to thank God for His actions in Burundi throughout that year and to entrust 2018 to Him.

The father of five, who also adopted several other children into his family, never travelled without his football team and a choir – he combined matches against local teams with evangelical prayer sessions, according to the AFP news agency.

“Mr Nkurunziza indeed believes he is president by divine will, and he therefore organises his life and government around these values,” presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe, once said.

As he neared the end of his tenure, he attributed all his success to God, including what he said was the country’s victory over Covid-19. But his critics, who include about 40 opposition parties as well as human rights groups, paint a somewhat different picture of him, accusing him of being a dictator who refused to give up power.

This perception started when Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term in 2015, rejecting pressure from protesters and foreign governments to step down. This sparked widespread unrest in the country that left more than 1,000 Burundians dead following clashes with security forces; more than 400,000 fled abroad and the economy took a downturn after donors cut aid.

Opponents boycotted the 2015 poll, accusing the government of election abuses and human rights violations. But his supporters maintained that his position was justified because he was elected by Parliament – not voters – in 2005. This view was upheld by Burundi’s Constitutional Court and gave him a lifeline to run for a further term in last month’s election. However, he decided to retire and was set to become known as the “supreme guide to patriotism”.

Nkurunziza also attracted worldwide condemnation last month when he declared four World Health Organisation (WHO) officials persona non grata and expelled them from Burundi. The decision came days before the May 20 presidential election and as coronavirus numbers continued to climb around the world.

The WHO officials had criticised the government’s decision to go ahead with the election, saying it was irresponsible and could give the virus space to spread.

Opposition parties said the election was fraudulent and lacking in accountability through monitoring by international observers after the government said the observers had to be quarantined for 14 days.

Born in the northern province of Ngozi, Nkurunziza was the son of a former governor who was killed in the 1972 massacre of ethnic Hutus. He belonged to the younger generation of Hutu leaders whose political and military careers started after the killing of President Melchior Ndadaye by disgruntled soldiers in 1993.

In 2005, Parliament elected him president after his Forces for the Defence of Democracy (FDD) party won elections earlier that year in the Senate and the National Assembly.

Young, optimistic and charismatic, he lived up to everyone’s expectations by uniting people and rebuilding the economy. Between 2006 and 2011, he received seven international awards for his peace-building efforts.

According to a 2005 BBC article, Nkurunziza joined FDD after narrowly escaping death in combat in the central province of Gitega in 2001. Injured in battle and with the army in hot pursuit, he said he saw those who wanted to kill him get eaten by crocodiles near the Maragarazi River in central Burundi.

That experience, he said, was proof that he was divinely predestined to lead FDD and by extension Burundi.

Before his death, Nkurunziza was due to receive a $540,000 (Sh57,564,000) retirement pay-out and a luxury villa. The Burundi government has declared a seven-day national mourning period beginning June 9.

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