Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza has died of heart failure, the government said Tuesday.
“The Government of the Republic of Burundi announces with great sorrow the unexpected death of His Excellency Pierre Nkurunziza, President of the Republic of Burundi, which occurred at the Cinquantenaire Hospital in Karusi following a cardiac arrest on June 8, 2020,” the tweet read.
An evangelical who believed he was chosen by God to rule the East African nation, Nkurunziza came to power in 2005, when he was selected by parliament.
His controversial and ultimately successful bid for a third term in 2015 plunged the country into crisis.
Nkurunziza, in power for 15 years, was to be replaced by his ally Evariste Ndayishimiye, who had been declared the winner of the May 20 presidential election.
Nkurunziza’s death comes just weeks before he was due to officially step down following Evariste Ndayishimiye’s electoral victory last month. A former army general, Ndayishimiye became the president-elect after winning the candidacy for Nkurunziza’s ruling party, the Hutu nationalist CNDD-FDD.
Outgoing Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza succumbed to a heart attack in Bujumbura while his wife, Denise Bucumi Nkurunziza, is still receiving treatment at the Aga Khan University Hospital, in Kenya’s capital Nairobi.
Ms Nkurunziza had attended a volleyball match on Saturday afternoon and was taken to hospital that evening after falling ill.
The former first Lady is receiving treatment for an underlying condition after contracting the coronavirus.
Pierre Nkurunziza was born on 18 December 1964 in Bujumbura, the capital of Burundi, shortly after the country’s independence from Belgian rule in 1962. He was one of six children born into a family from Buye in Ngozi where Nkurunziza spent his early years.
His father, Eustache Ngabisha, was a politician from the Hutu ethnic group and a Catholic. Ngabisha was involved in the nationalist politics under the Union for National Progress(Union pour le Progrès national, UPRONA) and was elected to National Assembly in 1965. Ngabisha later became a provincial governor but was killed in the genocidal violence of 1972.
Nkurunziza attended school in Ngozi and studied at the prestigious Athenée of Gitega after his father’s death. He enrolled at the Institute of Physical Education and Sports at the University of Burundi and obtained a degree in physical education in 1990. He taught at a school in Muramvya before becoming an assistant lecturer at the University in 1992. He also taught at the Higher Institute for Military Cadres (Institut supérieur des cadres militaires, ISCAM). It is believed that he was not politically active.
The newly elected president Melchior Ndadaye was assassinated in an attempted coup d’état in October 1993. The killing sparked a wave of ethnic violence between Hutu and Tutsi factions and the start of the Burundian Civil War. Nkurunziza was still teaching at the University of Burundi but was forced to flee in 1995 after hundreds of Hutu students were killed. He spent several years in hiding in the bush but was sentenced to death in absentia by a government-backed court in 1998.
At the time, he became associated with the rebel National Council for the Defense of Democracy—Forces for the Defense of Democracy (Conseil National Pour la Défense de la Démocratie—Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie, CNDD–FDD) and was in charge of coordinating the political and military wings.
He fought for their militia and gained the nickname “Pita”. He was nearly killed near Gitega in 2001 but interpreted his survival as a sign that he was destined to lead the group. Nkurunziza himself became a born-again Protestant and supported the integration of Tutsis and other minority groups into the CNDD–FDD.
Nkurunziza became the president of the CNDD–FDD on 28 August 2000 and presided over the movement as it moved towards a political compromise with the government. A series of agreements in 2003 paved the way for the CNDD–FDD to enter national politics and allowed Nkurunziza to be reunited with his wife and surviving family members.
He became Minister for Good Government and the General Inspection of the State which was considered “a springboard post at a moment when electoral preparations were under way to complete the transition”.
He was re-elected president of the CNDD–FDD, now a political party, in August 2004 and became its candidate for the forthcoming legislative and presidential elections. The elections brought Nkurunziza and the CNDD–FDD to power with a large majority of the vote.
Nkurunziza’s term as president began on 26 August 2005 and he soon adopted a number of popular policies.
He presided over the reconstruction of the Burundian state, based on an inter-ethnic compromise enshrined in the Arusha Accords which required the partitioning of state positions between Tutsi, Hutu, and the minority Twa ethnic groups. He presided over the demobilisation of the final Hutu rebel group from the Civil War, the Party for the Liberation of the Hutu People—National Forces of Liberation (Parti pour la libération du peuple Hutu—Forces nationales de libération, PALIPEHUTU-FNL), in 2008. However, Nkurunziza’s reputation became increasingly tarnished in the face of political factionalism, corruption, and continued insecurity. He was re-elected for a second term in July 2010 with a big majority but was effectively unopposed. The polls were boycotted by opposition parties.
Nkurunziza’s second term saw rising discontent with his leadership. Outdoor jogging was banned in June 2014 out of fear that group exercise might be used as cover for political meetings. Dissent came to a head with the public announcement on 25 April 2015 that Nkurunziza would stand for a third term in the presidential elections scheduled for June that year. This appeared to be contrary to the term limits established in the Arusha Accords and sparked widespread protests in Bujumbura and elsewhere which led to violent confrontations. However, the Constitutional Court ruled on 5 May that the projected third term was legal. The protests escalated and dozens were killed.
A military uprising was attempted on 13 May 2015 by soldiers loyal to Godefroid Niyombare but collapsed after extensive fighting in Bujumbura. Assassinations of opposition politicians and critics took place and it was reported that detained protesters were tortured or raped at so-called “black sites” by regime loyalists. However, the following months also saw the assassination of a number of CNDD-FDD officials and loyalists.
A rebel group emerged as the Republican Forces of Burundi (Forces républicaines du Burundi, FOREBU) and large numbers of civilians fled into exile. Despite the instability and a continuing opposition boycott, the elections took place in July and Nkurunziza was returned for a third term.
Nkurunziza’s third term saw the country’s increasing isolation in light of international condemnation of the repression which accompanied the 2015 unrest. The East African Community and African Union attempted to mediate the conflict unsuccessfully and Nkurunziza’s regime became increasingly isolated.
As well as being widely condemned, the 2015 crisis led to 350,000 refugees fleeing across the border into Rwanda and other neighboring countries in addition to another 110,000 being internally displaced. Poverty increased and many middle-class Burundians emigrated.
Nkurunziza withdrew Burundi from the International Criminal Court in 2017. However, in 2018 he announced that he would not be standing for a fourth term and that he would consequently stand down in 2020.
The CNDD–FDD’s presidential candidate for the elections of 2020 was Évariste Ndayishimiye, whom Nkurunziza specifically endorsed. The elections took place in May 2020 and resulted in a large majority in favour of Nkurunziza’s candidate. However, the elections occurred against the backdrop of criticism of Nkurunziza’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Burundi during which representatives of the World Health Organization (WHO) were expelled. Election monitors from the East African Community were also kept out.
Nkurunziza died unexpectedly on 8 June 2020 at the Fiftieth Anniversary Hospital in Karuzi, aged 55. His death was said to be caused by cardiac arrest. His death occurred after the 2020 elections but ahead of the projected hand-over of power in August. It had been intended that he would continue to remain prominent in public life as “Supreme Guide of Patriotism”. A week-long period of national mourning was announced.