Pierre Nkurunziza, the former rebel who became president of Burundi

By Romain Gras

Posted on Thursday, 11 June 2020 07:37
Pierre Nkurunziza, during the Burundi Independence celebrations on 1 July 2017. REUTERS/Evrard Ngendakumana

Isolated throughout his third and final term, Pierre Nkurunziza died three weeks after the election of his successor. He had come to power during the civil war that tore the country apart.

For nearly 25 years, he left his mark on Burundi’s political life, from the guerilla war of the Hutu rebellion in the 1990s to the presidential palace in Gitega.

From war to peace, to the tension around his third term candidacy in 2015, Pierre Nkurunziza will have been: former guerilla fighter sentenced to death, fervent evangelist, football enthusiast, clinging to power at the risk of plunging his country into chaos, and “Muhuzu” – “the reconciler”.

He died at the Fiftieth Anniversary Hospital in Karuzi, in the centre-east of the country, at the age of 55.

Rumours of his death had been swelling since 8 June, picked up by Burundian online media and by the Belgian press, and circulated even in the circles close to some of the region’s presidents.

The information was finally confirmed on Tuesday by the Burundian government, which announced the “unexpected death” of the outgoing president following a “cardiac arrest”.

A few hours earlier, however, several of his relatives continued to speak of “rumours”. Willy Nyamitwe, Pierre Nkurunziza’s faithful adviser, called at the beginning of the day to be “very careful what the street says about Burundi because the manipulation of information has become modus operandi.

READ MORE Burundi: Pierre Nkurunziza, mysterious to the end

During the night of 6-7 June, the Burundian president “felt uneasy and quickly went to the hospital in Karuzi to be treated,” the Burundian government statement said.

While “his state of health improved” on Sunday, he suffered a cardiac arrest on the morning of the 8th, “Immediate resuscitation was undertaken by a multidisciplinary team of doctors for several hours with cardio-respiratory assistance,” the government added. But, “despite intense, continuous and adapted care, the medical team was unable to recover the patient”.

Fifteen years of a mixed reign

Pierre Nkurunziza, at his swearing in on July 30, 2015. Riccardo Gangale/AP/SIPA

Pierre Nkurunziza had been running the country since 2005.

His successor and designated heir, Évariste Ndayishimiye, until now secretary general of the ruling National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Force for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), was declared the winner of the disputed presidential election of 20 May with more than 68% of the vote.

He is due to be sworn in on 20 August. In the meantime, the president of the National Assembly, Pascal Nyabenda, will take over as interim president, according to the constitution.

Ndayishimiye’s election brought an end to 15 years of a reign of mixed results, marked by several years of internal tensions within the party. Pierre Nkurunziza’s last term in office will have come at the cost of a post-electoral crisis whose effects are still being felt today.

Nkurunziza was born in 1964 in Ngozi, northern Burundi. The son of Eustache Ngabisha, one of the few Hutu MPs at the time, and of a Tutsi caretaker, Domitille Minani, he was barely eight years old when he was first confronted with ethnic violence in Burundi, with the 1972  massacre of part of the Hutu elite by the predominantly Tutsi army.

Twenty-one years later, Nkurunziza, now a graduate, was an adjunct professor of sport at the university when his country caught fire again: Melchior Ndadaye, the first democratically elected Hutu president, was assassinated on October 21, 1993 and Burundi plunged back into war.

Nkurunziza joined the uprising in 1995 after escaping an ambush by several of his students.

His brother was shot, but managed to join a group formed a year earlier, the CNDD-FDD.

Walking through the hills with other young rebels of his generation to take armed action against government forces and other rival Hutu factions (including the National Liberation Forces (FNL) led by Agathon Rwasa at the time), Nkurunziza quickly demonstrated the dynamism and organizational skills that appealed to the movement’s top brass.

Tactical and Political acumen

President Pierre Nkurunziza
President Pierre Nkurunziza, after voting in the constitutional referendum on 17 May 2018. Berthier Mugiraneza/AP/SIPA

President Pierre Nkurunziza, after voting in the constitutional referendum on 17 May 2018.

Until then little concerned with politics, he is developing a certain tactical sense in a movement that was riven with the settling of scores – from which he will almost always emerge unscathed.

This flexibility is how he was able to join in due course the group that chose to sideline Léonard Nyangoma, the founder of the CNDD-FDD.

Although he was not one of the most powerful generals, he was put at the head of the movement at the end of the 1990s.

The CNDD-FDD finally gave up its arms in 2003. Pierre Nkurunziza, for his part, was elected to the presidency by parliamentarians in 2005, in a Burundi that had just emerged from more than ten years of civil war. He will be re-elected in 2010, this time by universal suffrage.

During his years in power, Nkurunziza was quick to mingle with the population, particularly during the community work he set up at the beginning of his second term.

Aware of the weight of the rural electorate in Burundi, he readily favours a tracksuit over a suit and tie and is as comfortable going out in public as he is on the football pitch, which he walks around in the jersey of his club, Hallelujah FC. At the heart of the system, things are not so simple.

The CNDD-FDD is not spared from internal crises. But Nkurunziza, surrounded by a clique of generals united by the years spent in hiding, always faces them with the same confidence.

This was the case in 2008, when he dismissed and then imprisoned the influential Hussein Radjabu, at the risk of losing his parliamentary majority.

It is with the same assurance that he will support, throughout his second term, the idea of a third candidacy in 2015, despite the many tensions that this prospect generates within the party itself.

“Chosen” to lead the country

Clashes between demonstrators and police officers on 10 June 2015 in Buyenzi, a suburb of Bujumbura.
Gildas Ngingo/AP/SIPA

It did not matter how unsuccessful his constitutional review project was in 2014. No matter the growing anger against two of his most loyal collaborators: Adolphe Nshimirimana, then head of intelligence, and Alain-Guillaume Bunyoni, former chief of police. Nkurunziza is not a man to back down in the face of an obstacle.

A very religious, born-again evangelical member of the church whose wife, Denise Bucumi, was ordained a reverend in 2011, Nkurunziza was convinced that he has been “chosen” to lead the country. Always central in his way of governing, religion will take over the years a great importance.

On 26 April 2015, he was designated candidate for his own succession by the CNDD-FDD and was faced with an unprecedented pushback.

Three weeks of demonstrations under the anxious gaze of the international community and regional partners culminate on 13 May in an attempted coup led by the respected General Niyombare, a former member of the maquis who has just stepped down as head of intelligence.

The coup will fail, but the warning will not be without consequences. More fractured and militarised than ever, following a disputed election in which Nkurunziza once again emerged victorious, the CNDD-FDD embarked on an all-out repression that will result in at least 1,200 deaths between 2015 and 2017.

Neither the investigation by the UN Commission on Human Rights, which opened in September 2016, nor the three years of dialogue conducted under the aegis of the East African Community (EAC) will change the positions of the regime, which was radicalising, and finding itself deeply isolated.

Nkurunziza shunned all international summits held during his final term, making only a lightning trip to Tanzania in July 2017, his main support base in a region where tensions with neighbours, particularly Rwanda, are mounting.

Cult of secrecy

Pierre Nkurunziza, President of Burundi, on 20 August 2016 in Bujumbura.
Gildas Ngingo/AP/SIPA

But this isolation does not seem to dampen his determination.

He even seems to be considering a fourth term when he announces his constitutional referendum in May 2018. But while the new Basic Law authorises him to run for two more seven-year terms, Nkurunziza takes everyone by surprise and announces, on the day of its promulgation, that he will hand over the reins in 2020.

Did the pressure of the influential group of generals who have accompanied him since the rebellion sound the death knell for his ambitions? Difficult to say, in a party where a cult of secrecy reigns, inherited from the civil war.

Was Evariste Ndayishimiye, faithful of the first hour, his choice? There again, difficult to be certain. According to several former regime cadres, Nkurunziza’s preference was for the president of the National Assembly, Pascal Nyabenda.

Whether he chose or was forced to relinquish power, the outgoing president had in any case taken care to provide himself with a comfortable way out.

In January, a few days before the party appointed his successor, the National Assembly passed a bill guaranteeing him a golden pension – starting with a “luxury” villa, a 500,000 euro allowance and, for the rest of his life, an indemnity equal to the salary of an MP.

Raised to the rank of “Supreme Guide of Patriotism”, the former maquisard at the same time ensured control over the “Council of Wise Men”, the decision-making body of the CNDD-FDD, a party in which the voice of former generals remains preponderant.

However, the extent of his control over the future administration remained uncertain.

Under pressure from the international community, with the threat of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and the deterioration of the economic situation of the country, could Évariste Ndayishimiye soften the regime? The “unexpected” death of Pierre Nkurunziza, by changing the situation within an already divided party, adds to the uncertainty of the coming months.


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