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In the news: Death of Burundian president may not bring change

‘A lot of people want Burundi to turn a corner.’

Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza in Gitega Evrard Ngendakumana/REUTERS
Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza arrives at the CNDD-FDD party's extraordinary congress in January in the capital, Gitega. Nkurunziza died unexpectedly on Monday.

Burundi’s outgoing president, Pierre Nkurunziza, died unexpectedly on Monday just weeks after his handpicked successor was elected to office in a poll marred by voter fraud allegations and arrests of opposition supporters.

Officials said the 55-year-old Nkurunziza, who was due to stand down in August after 15 years in power, suffered a heart attack.

With his election victory last month, Evariste Ndayishimiye had already become Burundi’s president-elect, but the expectation was that Nkurunziza would be the power behind the throne – a strategy adopted by former president Joseph Kabila in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo.

Nkurunziza’s political significance seemed cemented when he was awarded the title of “Paramount Leader, Champion of Patriotism and Leadership Core” by the ruling CNDD-FDD party – along with a generous pension.

Read more → Five years after a bloody crackdown, a new vote stirs violence in Burundi

But analysts said his death may not signify any immediate political change in the small, troubled, Central African country.

Burundi is run by a cohort of former fighters from the country's 13-year civil war, and Ndayishimiye “is cut from the same cloth”, said Richard Moncrieff, project director for Central Africa at the International Crisis Group. Although he now escapes the shadow of Nkurunziza, “he will be seen as one among equals by his peers, as they put him there,” he added.

If there is a risk, according to Moncrieff, it is in the “destabalisation of the networks of power” in the country following Nkurunziza’s demise. “That could create instability and faction fighting, and Ndayishimiye might not be able to control that,” he said.

Nkurunziza’s death was announced by a government tweet, which described his passing as “unexpected”. The sports-loving, evangelical-preaching leader was attending a volleyball match in the east of the country on Saturday when he fell ill, but appeared to rally the following day. He then suffered a cardiac arrest on Monday and could not be revived, the government said.

There has been much speculation it was COVID-19 that felled him – his wife was airlifted to Kenya two weeks ago for medical treatment after reportedly contracting coronavirus. If confirmed, it would be a humiliating end for a man who downplayed the seriousness of the pandemic – espousing instead divine protection – and expelled a World Health Organisation team.

Read more → Coronavirus response takes backseat as election looms in Burundi

Nkurunziza came to power in 2005, his rule indelibly marked by his controversial third-term run in 2015. He forced through a constitutional change to clear his path, survived a coup attempt, and then won the poll boycotted by the opposition in the growing chaos.

In a bloody crackdown led by the police and his ruling party militia, the Imbonerakure, more than 1,000 people were killed and hundreds of thousands fled to neighbouring countries. Relatively few have felt it safe enough to return.

As Nkurunziza centralised control, the former rebel leader unpicked the key power-sharing agreement that had ended cycles of inter-communal massacres in Burundi, including genocides. In the deepening crisis, he resisted efforts led by the African Union and regional governments to mediate a political settlement, and in 2017 left the International Criminal Court, which had opened a preliminary investigation into possible crimes against humanity.

Nkurunziza retained a core of support in the countryside, with a populist “son-of-the-soil” anti-elites message. But diplomatic isolation and a failing economy – compounded by sanctions, crop failures, and a malaria epidemic – dented his popularity. 

In 2018, a new constitution enabling Nzurunziza to stay in power until 2034 was approved in a referendum. But instead, amid political jockeying, Ndayishimiye was chosen as the CNDD-FDD’s presidential candidate.

Last week, the constitutional court rejected opposition leader Agathon Rwasa’s allegations of voter fraud – so there is now a clear constitutional path for Ndayishimiye to be sworn in at the end of August for a seven-year term. In the meantime, the country will be led by Pascal Nyabenda, the president of the national assembly.

There may still be an opportunity for change, opening up the country to its neighbours and winning donor backing, noted Moncrieff. “A lot of people want Burundi to turn a corner,” he said.

– Obi Anyadike

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