Burundian flags flew at half-staff on Wednesday to mourn the death of President Pierre Nkurunziza just weeks before he would have overseen the country’s first democratic transfer of power. At the presidential palace, senior government officials and foreign ambassadors wearing face masks because of the coronavirus pandemic queued up to sign a condolence book.
Nkurunziza, 55, held the presidency for 15 years. Rumors are still swirling about how he died. Doctors admitted him to a hospital on Saturday night, and he went into cardiac arrest on Monday, according to a government statement. Local media reported his wife, Denise, flew to neighboring Kenya on May 29 after testing positive for COVID-19, raising speculation that the president died from the disease.
Nkurunziza opposed coronavirus-related restrictions and allowed political rallies and sporting events to continue as usual during the pandemic. Days before the May 20 election, the government kicked out a World Health Organization official after the agency raised concerns about crowds. The country of 11 million has reported 83 infections, 45 recoveries, and one death.
“We saw in the run-up to the election that no measures were taken by the government to protect its population from the virus,” said Nelleke van de Walle, the central Africa deputy project director with the International Crisis Group.
Gen. Évariste Ndayishimiye, the ruling party’s secretary-general, won the election and is scheduled to take office on Aug. 20. The government called an emergency Cabinet meeting on Thursday to discuss what to do next. Pascal Nyabenda, president of the National Assembly, the lower chamber of parliament, will serve as the interim leader until Ndayishimiye’s inauguration.
Van de Walle noted that Nkurunziza wanted Nyabenda to succeed him, while other generals backed Ndayishimiye. Nkurunziza’s absence likely will cause a power tussle. “In a way, there’s a small vacuum, and some generals might try to get more power or support for their candidate,” she said.
Nkurunziza, a one-time rebel leader, assumed power in 2005 at the end of the country’s civil war that killed some 300,000 Burundians. His government cracked down on dissent and used political violence for years. Nkurunziza claimed a contested third-term victory in 2015 that sparked widespread unrest and triggered an economic crisis. Hundreds of people died, and some 400,000 others fled the country.
In 2017, Nkurunziza withdrew Burundi from the International Criminal Court after the United Nations Commission on Inquiry requested an investigation into his government for crimes against humanity, including killings, imprisonment, torture, and rape. In March 2019, the Burundian government forced the UN Human Rights office to shut down after 23 years in the country.
Nkurunziza announced in 2018 he would not seek a fourth term, though he was expected to assume the newly created title of “supreme guide of patriotism.” The position would have required the new president to consult Nkurunziza on issues of national security and unity. Nkurunziza was also set to receive a $500,000 gift and a luxury villa.
Ndayishimiye’s victory signaled the country’s potential return to a functional democracy. In a message shortly after his win, the president-elect vowed to promote democracy and urged exiled Burundians to return home.
Van de Walle said Ndayishimiye belongs to the same ruling party political structure, but he appears more open to change. She added that the country’s dire economic situation likely will encourage the new leader to mend relations with other nations: “He needs the support from the international community and from international investors.”