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President Pierre Nkurunziza, 1962-2020



After 15 years in office, Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza, aged 55, died early in the week after suffering a cardiac arrest.

According to the Burundian  government, he was admitted to hospital on lste last week after feeling unwell, but just when it seemed like his condition had improved,  he had a cardiac arrest and efforts to revive him were unsuccessful, officials say.

Like most African leaders, Pierre Nkurunziza was loved and feared in almost in equal measure. The circumstance that facilitated his rise to power helped to fuel a love for him  by those who felt he lived up to his promises when he was elected after the civil war. But he was feared by his political opponents.

Before the civil war, Nkurunziza, who had graduated in sports education, was a teacher and assistant lecturer at the University of Burundi.

He survived the killings of 1993 when ethnic Hutus were targeted at the university and joined the Forces for the Defence of Democracy (FDD) group.

Nkurunziza became the president of the CNDD–FDD on August 28, 2000 and presided over the movement as it moved towards a political compromise with the government.

After series of agreements in 2003, CNDD–FDD joined national politics  allowing Nkurunziza reunited with his wife and surviving family members.

He soon became minister for Good Government and the General Inspection of the State which was later served as a springboard for him in the elections.

Re-elected president of the CNDD–FDD, now a political party, in August 2004, he 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.

Upon assumption of office, at age 40, the former rebel leader inherited a country brutally torn apart by an ethnic conflict that had killed about 300,000 people over a decade.

Young, optimistic and charismatic, he managed to live up to everyone’s expectations by uniting people and rebuilding the economy.

Between 2006 and 2011, the president – known for his preaching and love of football – received seven international awards for his peace-building efforts.

Again, like most African leaders, fired up by the zeal to transform the country, Nkurunziza adopted a number of popular policies.

He is reputed to have presided over the reconstruction of post-civil war 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. Also he oversaw 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, his democratic credentials began to suffer. Political factionalism, corruption, and continued insecurity tarnished his image as a post-war reformist President.

Nevertheless, he was re-elected for a second term in July 2010, securing a  majority. The polls were boycotted by opposition parties.

Nkurunziza’s image worsened in his  second term as there  arose discontent,  With that the unacceptability of his leadership became more pronounced. However his insistence on serving a third term, contrary to the term limits established in the Arusha Accords sparked widespread protests in Bujumbura and other parts of the country which led to violent confrontations.

The situation took a turn for the worse with the ruling of a Constitutional Court  endorsing Nkurunziza’s third term agenda as legal. The protests escalated, leading to killings.

Soldiers loyal to Godefroid Niyombare attempted an uprising  but it collapsed after extensive fighting in Bujumbura. There were reports of assassinations of opposition politicians and critics. Reports also had it that detained protesters were tortured or raped at  “black sites” by regime loyalists.

There were also assassinations of  CNDD-FDD officials and loyalists. The situation led to the emergence of a rebel group, Republican Forces of Burundi (Forces républicaines du Burundi, FOREBU) while large civilians fled into exile. In spite of the instability and a boycott by the opposition,  Nkurunziza won the election and was returned for a third term.

His third term did start the country’s increasing isolation following  international condemnation of the repression which accompanied the 2015 unrest. The situation created concern among African leaders even as attempts by East African Community and African Union to mediate in the conflict proved unsuccessful.

By 2015, the 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.  In 2018, he declared that he would not be standing for a fourth term and that he would consequently stand down in 2020.

Nkurunziza’s candidate Rvariste Ndayishimiye, won the presidential election which took place in May 2020.

The election took place against the backdrop of criticism of Nkurunziza’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic in Burundi  which saw to the expulsion of  World Health Organization (WHO) from the country. Election monitors from the East African Community were also not allowed to come into the country.

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.

He 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. At the same time, he was a football coach for Muzinga FCand Union Sporting in the country’s first division. He married Denise Bucumi in 1994.