Nkurunziza died of a heart attack at age 56, the government announced Tuesday, after 15 years of power, riddled by deadly political unrest.
The sport enthusiast reportedly watched a volleyball match in Ngozi Province in the afternoon of June 6, before being taken to a hospital in Karusi Province for treatment as he felt unwell according to officials.
They say he appeared better Sunday but “to very great surprise” his health abruptly worsened Monday morning, and several hours of effort failed to revive him.
“The government of the Republic of Burundi announced with great sadness … the unexpected death of his Excellency Pierre Nkurunziza, President of Burundi,” the government said in a tweeted statement, declaring a week of national mourning.
Last month Burundi elected a new leader, retired general Evariste Ndayishimiye, who was flagbearer for the ruling CNDD-FDD party.
It was not immediately clear what the government’s steps will be. However, analysts expected officials to follow the dictates of the law.
“According to Burundi’s constitution, when a president dies in office before handing over power, the speaker of parliament takes over and organises a fresh election. But I think the leadership will ignore this requirement and go with Evariste Ndayishimiye,” said David Gakunzi, a Burundian author.
It is widely expected that the speaker of the Burundian National Assembly Pascal Nyabenda will lead the transition government until August 20, as stipulated by the Constitution.
Despite the government’s statement, some in Burundi wondered whether Nkurunziza died of COVOD-19 instead.
Since last week, Burundi’s first lady Denise Nkurunziza, has been receiving medical treatment in Kenya. She was rumored to have tested positive for coronavirus – a disease Nkurunziza had appeared to downplay, holding an election in the midst of the outbreak, and even expelling World Health Organization representatives from the country.
“When Nkurunziza’s wife was flown to Kenya suffering from COVID-19, many in Burundi suspected the president himself was sick,” said Justin Nyabenda, a resident in Bujumbura was quoted by Associated Press.
-Time of office-
Nkurunziza took office in 2005, chosen by lawmakers to lead the East African nation after the 1993-2005 civil war killed about 300,000 people. He and Ndayishimiye fought alongside each other as rebels in the conflict.
The peace process known as the Arusha Accords specified that a president’s term can be renewed only once. But Nkurunziza, who won a second term in 2010, announced he was eligible for a third term in 2015 because he had not been chosen the first time by universal suffrage.
The deadly turmoil that followed badly damaged ties with the international community, and Burundi became the first country to leave the ICC after it started investigating allegations of state-sponsored crimes including murder, rape and torture.
The United Nations human rights office reported more than 300 extrajudicial killings and was later kicked out of the country after outgoing U.N. rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein called Burundi one of the “most prolific slaughterhouses of humans in recent times.”
Burundi’s government has denied allegations it targets its people, calling them malicious propaganda by dissidents.
Nkurunziza survived a coup attempt shortly after the 2015 vote. International donors cut support, leaving the government struggling. Hundreds of thousands of people fled the country.
“Many Burundians will remember Nkurunziza as a president who left behind a divided country,” said author Gakunzi. “When he came into power after the Arusha agreement, citizens expected peace and prosperity. However, his greed for power in 2015 divided the country and sent many to live in exile.”
Many Burundians were surprised when the president announced in 2018 that he was serving his last term. Many thought he would continue to wield power behind the scenes. The opposition leader who lost the May election, Agathon Rwasa, said his supporters were harassed ahead of the vote and arrested by the scores on election day. His court challenge to the vote alleging fraud was rejected.
The government had approved legislation meant to bestow upon Nkurunziza the title of “paramount leader” once he stepped down.
Nkurunziza “leaves behind a legacy of ruthless repression,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “He ruled through fear to erect a system synonymous with the worst human rights abuses: extrajudicial killings, torture, disappearances and the systematic crushing of dissent.”
Burundi must investigate the crimes, Mudge said. “As long as these abuses go unpunished, this dark legacy will hang over Burundi for many years to come.”
Nkurunziza, who has faced accusations of political repression at home and abroad since coming to power in 2005, was due to stay in office until August, when Ndayishimiye was supposed to take over and start a seven-year term.