As controversial in death as he was in life, Pierre Nkurunziza, the three-term President of the East African country of Burundi, suddenly died on June 8, 2020. He had only a month and a few days to conclude what would have been one of Africa’s remarkable political careers, execute the first peaceful transition of power ever in the country’s history, and thereafter proceed into an enviable retirement, but death, as it often does, came like a thief in the night. He was 55, and, compared to many African leaders who have been in office for 25 years and more, Pierre Nkurunziza appeared too young to retire. He is survived by his wife, Denise, and six children.
The government of Burundi announced a seven-day mourning period in his honour. It also informed the public that the president had died of a heart attack. Most independent observers, however, say he died of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic. Their proof, if it could be so called, was that the First Lady of Burundi was observed being air-lifted alone to Nairobi on May 30, 2020, where she sought treatment for the coronavirus. President Nkurunziza and his government had discounted the gravity of the virus as barely worthy of the dread the world has accorded the disease. Before his death, the President said the pandemic was transmitted by air. God, he said, had “cleared the coronavirus from the Burundi skies.” And on May 15, 2020, the government, without apparent provocation, expelled the representatives of the World Health Organisation (WHO) from the country, accusing them of manipulating the outbreak.
The medical personnel at the hospital where the President’s body was flown to following his death said Nkurunziza had died of coronavirus. Indeed, the world has adopted Pierre Nkurunziza as the first head of state and government to have died of the pandemic.
Pierre Nkurunziza was born on June 18, 1964 in Ngozi, a northern Burundi province, of a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother. As in Rwanda, the minority Tutsi were granted a privileged status over the majority Hutus. The colonial legacies of Rwanda and Burundi were thus identical. Both were administered as one country by Belgium before Burundi opted for independence in 1962. It was traditionally monarchical. Its first democratic election in 1993 yielded a Hutu-led government which was overthrown in a military coup by the minority Tutsi-led military. A civil war then began. It took 12 years to reach a settlement.
Nkurunziza was admitted to the University of Burundi to study Physical Education. On graduation, the university also gave him a job. He was also a football coach. All this changed when the civil war began and he had to flee the university for his life. He fled to join one of the rebel groups fighting on behalf of the Hutus which later renamed itself as the National Council for the Defense of Democracy—Forces for the Defense of Democracy (NCDD-FDD). He became very active in seeking a settlement for the war when he became the leader of the NCDD-FDD. An inter-ethnic peace deal was formulated which gathered enough support creating an atmosphere conducive for an election. That was his major break. In 2005, he ran as a candidate of the NCDD-FDD for president and won. In 2010, he was re-elected. He stirred the hornet’s nest when he announced in 2014 he would seek a third term. The constitution had specified two terms of five years each. Besides, a third term was contrary to the Arusha Accords which spelled the terms of the settlement of the civil war. He took the issue to the Constitutional Court which, to the dismay of most Burundians, granted Nkurunziza’s prayers and declared that the ‘third term’ was legal.
Nkurunziza’s third terms threw Burundi into political turmoil, leading to the deaths of hundreds and the flight of more than 300,000 people from the country. The election was largely boycotted by the opposition. Nkurunziza got his third term with worldwide condemnations, withdrawal of foreign grants and assistance as well as isolation in the world. His constitutional reforms during the third terms merely lengthened the tenure of the presidency from five to seven years. But his offer to let pass a fourth term took most by surprise. His death occurred after the 2020 election which elected his chosen successor, a retired general, who would be sworn in any time from now. It had been intended that he would remain active in public life, having been declared a consultant to the incoming government and nationally as “Supreme Guide of Patriotism.” He was also to receive a $450,000 golden handshake and a luxury mansion on his retirement. He is remembered bitterly for his third term, but he is also remembered fondly for his liberal primary education programmes and his devotion to sports. His influence for peace was probably the reason the carnage in Rwanda in 1994 wasn’t replicated in Burundi.