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Pierre Nkurunziza - Burundi's "eternal supreme leader" is dead

A government spokesman told Deutsche Welle that Burundi's outgoing President Pierre Nkurunziza had suffered a heart attack. But observers suspect COVID-19 as a possible cause of death. According to various news agencies, Nkurunziza was taken to a hospital in Karusi province over the weekend. After improving in the meantime, the 55-year-old's condition deteriorated dramatically on Monday morning. Nkurunziza's wife was therefore brought to Kenya at the end of May to be treated for COVID-19.

The news of Nkurunziza's death comes just a few weeks before the planned handover to his designated successor and party colleague Evariste Ndayishimiye. This had won the presidential election in May after Nkurunziza himself no longer ran. In order not to jeopardize the election date, the corona epidemic in Burundi was hushed up by the authorities from the start, says Thierry Vircoulon, Burundi expert from the International Crisis Group in an interview with DW. According to Vircoulon, Nkurunziza may have been a victim of this political strategy. "After his death, of course, it will be difficult to keep the pandemic covered up."

Crowds at an election campaign event in Burundi at the end of April: The corona virus is being played down

For the balance of power in Burundi, Nkurunziza's death is like an earthquake. For 15 years he had ruled the small country in Central Africa. Observers had expected that even after Evariste Ndayishimiye took office, Nkurunziza would have continued to steer official business from the background. Until recently, it remained unclear how exactly the power structure in Burundi would have looked. "This question no longer arises," says Vircoulon. "The new president of the old regime now has a completely free hand."

"Eternal Supreme Leader"

The Burundian ruling party CNDD-FDD once dubbed President Pierre Nkurunziza the "eternal supreme leader". Indeed, it seemed for a long time that the former rebel leader wanted to hold the presidency for decades. It was not until 2018 that the Burundians approved a constitutional amendment in a referendum with a large majority, which theoretically would have allowed Nkurunziza to remain in office until 2034.

In 2015 there were protests against Nkurunziza's third term in office

Since Nkurunziza ran for the third time as a presidential candidate in April 2015, thus violating the constitutional restriction on two terms in office in the eyes of many, Burundi has been in a permanent crisis. Since then, 400,000 people have fled the country and thousands have died. The International Criminal Court in The Hague has been investigating the Burundian government for "systematic terror" since November 2017. Burundi had left the Tribunal shortly afterwards at Nkurunziza's behest.

Civil war career

Like many Burundians of his generation, Nkurunziza, born in 1963, came into contact with violence early in his life. In 1972 his father, a member of the Hutu ethnic group and governor of two provinces, was killed during a wave of ethnically motivated violence. According to estimates, more than 100,000 Hutu and more than 10,000 Tutsi were killed within a few months. Pierre Nkurunziza, his siblings and his mother, a Tutsi, survive.

In the 1980s, Nkurunziza left his home province of Ngozi to study sports science at the university in the capital Bujumbura. He worked as a physical education teacher and assistant professor at the university when the civil war broke out in 1993 between Hutu rebels and the Tutsi-dominated army. Two years later, Nkurunziza narrowly escapes an army attack on the university campus that kills over 200 people. Shortly thereafter, he joined the rebel group FDD, the armed arm of the Hutu-dominated political group CNDD.

In 2003, as leader of the rebel group FDD, Nkurunziza (left) signed a peace treaty with the Burundian government

Nkurunziza made a career as a militiaman and in 2001 took over the leadership of a splinter group of the FDD. In this function he is decisively involved in the peace negotiations with President Domitien Ndayizeye and in 2004 even moved into his cabinet. A year later, the CNDD-FDD, now a political party, wins the first free parliamentary elections since the civil war. The party leader Nkurunziza becomes president.

But the war years also left their mark on his private life: five of his six siblings were killed in fighting and massacres during the civil war.

Corruption allegations

The new president is celebrated at home and abroad for his efforts to end the civil war. But according to Burundi expert Clark, in the early years of his presidency, Nkurunziza was already laying the groundwork for the crisis that has shaped the country since 2015. "In order to outdo political opponents and to get the party and the state apparatus under control, Nkurunziza made use of the state treasury right from the start," said Clark.

In 2018, Nkurunziza campaigned for a constitutional amendment that would theoretically have allowed him many more years in office

But because Burundi suddenly ran out of money towards the end of the 2000s due to the international financial crisis, this strategy no longer worked. The gradual collapse of the state in recent years is therefore in many ways the inevitable consequence of the corrupt regime that Nkurunziza has built, said Clark.

Because Nkurunziza has increasingly resorted to repression and violence since the beginning of the unrest in 2015, many former colleagues have now turned away from him. One of them is Onesime Nduwimana, ex-spokesman for the CNDD-FDD. In an interview with DW in 2018, he said: "You get the impression that Nkurunziza doesn't even see the scope of his actions." All that matters to him is his power.

Little hope of change

The fact that Pierre Nkurunziza finally did not take up a fourth term in office in May of this year came as a surprise to many Burundians, and the handover to Evariste Ndayishimiye was eagerly awaited. But even after Nkurunziza's death, the people in the country are skeptical that something will change in the political situation in Burundi. "The problem lies in the system of the ruling party CNDD-FDD," says Marguerite Barankitse, founder of the "Maison Shalom", a refuge for young people and refugees in Burundi. Now a real political dialogue is needed to find a sustainable solution for the country.

Burundian President-elect Evariste Ndayishimiye voting in the presidential election in mid-May

The human rights activist Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, who barely survived an attack by the Nkurunzizas regime in August 2015, does not have high hopes for changes either: "We know how the generals and officers react. Even if Ndayishimiye becomes president, he will continue to be in the same system of CNDD-FDD work. " Regarding Nkurunziza's death, Mbonimpa told DW: "As a human rights activist, it always hurts when someone dies." But it pains him most of all that Nkurunziza can no longer be prosecuted. "We have been waiting for justice, but now it will be difficult."

According to government spokesman Prosper Ntahogwamiye, Burundi has been in seven-day state mourning since Tuesday. On Friday the Constitutional Court decided: The designated President Evariste Ndayishimiye should now take his oath of office "as soon as possible". The judges did not give a date, but Ndayishimiye should probably not have to wait until August before he is officially appointed as Nkurunziza's successor as president.