Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) – Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza believed he was chosen by God to lead the east African nation and he did so with an iron fist, his efforts to stay in power plunging the country into chaos in his final years.
Nkurunziza, who died on Monday aged 55, had been due to finally stand down as head of state in August after 15 tumultuous years.
The government said he had died of heart failure, although his wife was flown to Nairobi late last month for treatment after catching the new coronavirus.
Nkurunziza stunned observers when he decided not to run in a May election, after constitutional reform passed in a referendum in 2018 extended term limits that could have allowed him to stay in office until 2034.
A former army general handpicked by the ruling party to replace him, Evariste Ndayishimiye, won the contested poll.
Nkurunziza’s efforts to seek a third term in 2015 plunged Burundi into a spiral of violence that killed 1,200 people, displaced hundreds of thousands and left most of his critics silenced or exiled.
At his 2015 swearing-in, the fervent evangelical declared God was on his side and warned his enemies “will be scattered like flour thrown into the air — as the God of heaven is a witness”.
Nkurunziza was fuelled by a “messianic vision” of his own rule, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said in a report ahead of the 2018 referendum.
Nkurunziza, from Burundi’s majority Hutu ethnic group, was born in 1964 to a wealthy family, the son of a member of parliament.
He was still a schoolboy when his father was killed in one of a string of ethnic massacres in 1972 that decimated the Hutu elite.
After high school he hoped to become an army officer or an economist — dreams made impossible by restrictions on the Hutu majority by the then ethnic Tutsi government, so he ended up a sports teacher.
He joined the Hutu rebellion in 1995, finding religion as a solace after he was badly wounded in the leg, seeing visions when he was hiding out in remote swamps that one day he would be president.
“Nkurunziza indeed believes he is president by divine will… and he therefore organises his life and government around these values,” presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe once said.
Nkurunziza spent at least half of every week travelling with his football team Alleluia FC and his choir “Komeza gusenga” which means “pray non-stop” in the local Kirundi language.
He and wife Denise also held prayer meetings, where they preach to thousands, washing the feet of the poor.
In power since 2005, when he was selected by parliament, Nkurunziza was re-elected in 2010.
In 2015, he argued this meant he had only been directly elected once, but promised that this would be his last term.
Nkurunziza’s critics had increasingly lashed out at his slide into politico-religious mysticism and the growing cult of personality around the president.
In February lawmakers passed a law declaring him a “supreme guide for patriotism”, and he was expected to continue to play a key role after stepping down as president.
The former sports teacher at the University of Burundi continued to practice swimming and cycling and played up to three football matches a week, which his team often wins.
Nkurunziza’s supporters praised him for the construction of more than 5,000 schools and 10 sports stadiums around the country.
However, critics such as exiled dissident Alexis Sinduhije saw rather the “increased poverty, violations of human rights… and corruption” that increased under his rule.
Since his 2015 re-election, “the entirety of the political, administrative, judicial and security system has fallen under the stranglehold of the president’s clan,” the FIDH said in 2018.
The last months of his life were marked by his denial of the gravity of the coronavirus epidemic, and he claimed less than two weeks ago that Burundi was saved from the virus due to “the hand of God”.
“If all over the world we talk about the coronavirus pandemic, but we were able to gather without any problem, hold an electoral campaign without any problem, send our children to school and go to the market without worries… it is the hand of God which shows he has placed a special sign above our Burundi,” he said.