Shock, fear as Burundi mourns fallen president
Burundians were in shock Wednesday after the sudden death of veteran President Pierre Nkurunziza, with condolences pouring in from across Africa as the troubled country grappled with the complex legacy of his 15-year rule.
Flags in Burundi were lowered to half mast after the death of the 55-year-old leader, who according to the government died on Monday of a heart attack after feeling unwell for a two days.
First Lady Denise Bucumi, who had been recovering from coronavirus in a Nairobi hospital, flew back to Bujumbura late Tuesday, a source in the presidency said.
Among African leaders, President John Magufuli praised Nkurunziza’s “strong leadership and his efforts to fight for peace, development and democracy” but critics regretted he had died without justice being served for rights abuses under his rule.
Kenya President Uhuru Kenyatta described him as “an exceptional leader in many ways. He was a man of great courage.”
Nkurunziza, a fit sports enthusiast and evangelical who believed he was chosen by God to lead the nation, leaves behind a country in political and economic turmoil after his divisive rule.
His 2015 run for a third term in office sparked protests and a failed coup, with violence leaving at least 1,200 dead while some 400,000 fled the country.
Nkurunziza had been due to step down in August after his surprise decision not to run in a May election, which was won by the ruling CNDD-FDD’s handpicked successor, Evariste Ndayishimiye.
Members of the ruling party were in shock after the news of Nkurunziza’s death. “It is a catastrophe, it is as if the sky has crashed down on us. What will become of us without our supreme guide,” a party leader said, sobbing, said.
Gerard, a party member in Nkurunziza’s home province of Ngozi, said he could not understand how Nkurunziza “had died just like that... we are obliged to believe this official version, but I don’t understand.”
Rumours swirled on social media, with some wondering if he had been poisoned, while others suspecting he had been infected by Covid-19. Burundi has largely ignored the pandemic, which Nkurunziza declared had spared Burundi thanks to God.
Under the constitution, the president of the National Assembly, Pascal Nyabenda, should take over on an interim basis before Ndayishimiye’s swearing-in in August. Some in the country were gripped by anxiety over what comes next.
His final years in office saw the country placed under sanctions and cut off by western donors, with Burundi ranked by the World Bank as one of the world’s three poorest countries. -AFP