By Edward Rwema and Frederic Nkundikije
Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza has died after suffering what the government said was a heart attack, two months before he was scheduled to leave office.
Nkurunziza died at the Karusi Hospital in eastern Burundi late Monday, two days after he reported feeling unwell and was taken to the facility, the government reported in a news release posted Tuesday on social media.
VOA’s Central Africa service reported a heavy military presence around the hospital Tuesday.
Nkurunziza’s wife, Denise Bucumi Nkurunziza, was airlifted to a hospital in Kenya’s capital in late May after contracting COVID-19. She is still recovering in a Nairobi hospital, but her illness triggered rumors that the president had caught the disease as well.
Nkurunziza, 55, was sworn in as president in 2005, at the end of Burundi’s civil war. He was re-elected in 2010. His decision to run for a controversial third term in 2015 set off a failed coup and violence that left hundreds dead and prompted hundreds of thousands of Burundians to flee the country.
He was due to step down Aug. 20 after his hand-picked successor, General Evariste Ndayishimiye, won the presidential election on May 20.
According to Burundi’s constitution, if the country’s president dies, he is to be replaced by the president of the National Assembly. There was no immediate word Tuesday on when the assembly leader, Pascal Nyabenda, might take office.
Legal scholar Pacifique Manirakiza raised some uncertainty about succession.
“The constitution is clear about how to replace a president when he dies or steps down, but what the constitution doesn’t say is how to replace a president when there is an incoming president in the waiting,” said Manirakiza, associate professor of law at the University of Ottawa in Canada.
He told VOA that the constitution provided a three-month interim post to give authorities time “to organize elections. … But in the case of Burundi now, we have the president-elect who is waiting for the swearing-in.”
Government spokesman Prosper Ntahorwamiye, in an interview with Deutsche Welle, said, “We ask the Burundian people to remain calm and to continue to pray.”
Reactions to death
In a statement Tuesday, Human Rights Watch said Nkurunziza ruled Burundi through fear and crushed dissent.
In 2017, Burundi withdrew from the International Criminal Court after refusing to cooperate with prosecutors alleging that troops loyal to Nkurunziza had committed war crimes – including rape, torture and murder – against his political adversaries. The government has denied those allegations.
In late 2018, Burundi ordered the U.N. Human Rights Council to close its office in eastern Burundi, after a report alleging the “involvement of the regime in systematic abuses and a risk of genocide.”
In mid-May, Burundi expelled four officials from the World Health Organization without explanation, despite the coronavirus pandemic. Nkurunziza – a born-again Christian and, like his wife, a pastor – had claimed God gave special protection to faithful Burundians.
The country officially had 83 confirmed cases and one death as of Tuesday, though the French news agency, Agence France-Presse, said doctors in Bujumbura confidentially spoke of many unreported cases and deaths.
Gervais Rufyikiri, who served in the Senate and then, from 2010 to 2015, as second vice president, told VOA that he and Nkurunziza “worked together on many projects, some of which contributed to Burundi’s development.” Rufyikiri didn’t specify what he considered his accomplishments, but he acknowledged “the national economy did not turn out as we had hoped.”
Burundi remains one of the globe’s poorest countries, according to the World Bank, with most people living in poverty, especially in rural areas. The late president found his strongest support in those areas, where he was considered a man of the people because he helped with harvests and organized prayer services. After the coup attempt in 2015, he moved from the then-capital, Bujumbura, to his northern hometown of Ngozi.
The two men’s relationship ruptured in 2015 when Nkurunziza decided to seek a third term. Rufyikiri fled the country.
Speaking from exile in Switzerland, he added, “My wish for Burundi is not to go back into violence as we experienced in the past. … Whenever there is war, many people shed tears.”
Nkurunziza had not intended to surrender all the privileges of leadership after leaving the presidency. The ruling CNDD-FDD party anointed him its Eternal Supreme Guide in 2018. The government said that when he stepped down, it would send him off with 1 billion Burundi francs – about $535,000 – plus a villa.
VOA Central Africa Service’s Geoffrey Mutagoma also contributed to this report.