Burundi’s leader died last month. How will the world remember him?

Military officers escort a gun carriage carrying the casket of the late Burundian president, Pierre Nkurunziza, draped in the national flag, during a state funeral procession in Gitega, Burundi, on June 26, 2020. (Clovis Guy Siboniyo/Reuters)
Military officers escort a gun carriage carrying the casket of the late Burundian president, Pierre Nkurunziza, draped in the national flag, during a state funeral procession in Gitega, Burundi, on June 26, 2020. (Clovis Guy Siboniyo/Reuters)

Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza was a master of suspense, often stunning observers with last-minute, surprise moves. His death on June 8 at age 55, just two days after an appearance at a volleyball match, had the same effect.

Burundians had elected Nkurunziza’s successor, Évariste Ndayishimiye, on May 20, and the Constitutional Court of Burundi ruled on June 12 that the president-elect be sworn in quickly. With Ndayishimiye inaugurated as president on June 18, the country seems to have avoided a succession crisis.

What will Nkurunziza’s legacy be?

Commentary in the Western media has largely offered a negative take on Nkurunziza’s legacy. To most observers, he was among the many leaders who were once promising revolutionaries fighting injustice in their countries, only to become autocrats once in power. Critics accuse Nkurunziza of using violence against political opponents and of isolating Burundi internationally.

Both criticisms are accurate. However, my doctoral research on Nkurunziza’s opponents reveals a more complicated picture of the Burundian political landscape.

Nkurunziza was a popular president in 2005

In the 1990s, Nkurunziza — of mixed Hutu-Tutsi origin — led a rebel group called the CNDD-FDD that fought against minority rule by an ethnic Tutsi elite over Burundi’s predominantly Hutu population. After a peace treaty established a power-sharing arrangement, he became Burundi’s president in 2005.

Initially popular, Nkurunziza turned increasingly autocratic — and his government in 2015 violently repressed protests against his controversial third term in office. The protests, supported by influential segments of Burundian society, led to a coup attempt. The harsh repression that followed left possibly thousands dead or disappeared, and drove more than 350,000 Burundians into neighboring countries as refugees.

My research indicates, however, that many of Nkurunziza’s political opponents also are no strangers to violent politics. Although the 2015 protests started out peacefully, they quickly resorted to violence. Most protesters and their leaders also welcomed the May 2015 attempted coup, despite the ideological inconsistency between an unconstitutional removal of an elected leader through a military takeover and the protesters’ stated desire for democracy.

After the coup’s failure, some protesters quickly morphed into an urban guerrilla force. Many already possessed military skills from the civil war period. Others received quick training from dissident soldiers and from former rebels. In December 2015, these units launched an ill-fated attack on military bases in the capital in another attempt to dislodge Nkurunziza from power. Scores were killed in the aftermath; many of those who managed to escape fled across the country’s borders to join one of the nascent rebel movements.

Burundian intellectuals who championed peaceful protests in 2015 became openly supportive of an armed rebellion against the existing government. Much like Nkurunziza’s rebel movement, they framed their goals as resistance to undemocratic power.

Nkurunziza sought to eliminate foreign influence

They would be loath to admit it, but many of Nkurunziza’s staunchest political opponents would find synergy with his party’s nationalist discourse and defiance of external interference in Burundi’s affairs. Under Nkurunziza, the country sought to free itself from international pressure — advocating that the U.N. Security Council drop Burundi from its agenda, rejecting the deployment of African Union soldiers and Western election observers, refusing to cooperate with U.N. human rights monitors and withdrawing from the International Criminal Court.

Nkurunziza’s critics might go about it more elegantly than the radical rhetoric of the CNDD-FDD, which unequivocally condemns the international system’s neocolonial politics and imperialist tendencies toward African nations. But most would share Nkurunziza’s rejection of the racialized and subservient status of Burundi and other African nations in global politics. History might yet judge positively that after donors withdrew election funding in 2015, the country decided to go it alone and pay for its own elections from then on.

Did he succumb to covid-19?

Just like other key turning points in Burundian history, the circumstances of Nkurunziza’s death remain shrouded in mystery. The official story is that he died of a heart attack, but speculation is rife that he died of covid-19, the disease he had mocked. Burundi was one of a handful of countries to refuse lockdown measures, going as far as expelling World Health Organization experts and pressing on with the May 20 elections.

Or did one of his many opponents poison him, as some opposition activists suggested on Twitter? Both of these rumors, and others, seem to have proponents among Burundian political figures with whom I’ve been in contact recently. It seems unlikely that a definitive story of his death will put speculation to rest anytime soon, even if future political developments provide some clues.

Burundi’s parliament may have bestowed upon him the honorific title of “Supreme Guide of Patriotism” in February in anticipation of his exit from office, but Nkurunziza nonetheless remains a divisive, rather than a unifying, figure for his country. The mixed reactions to his death are a reminder of the deep wounds and cleavages in Burundian society, which he had failed to heal. While some Burundians grieved, others openly celebrated. Even among those he had forced into exile, some struck a conciliatory tone, while others refused to mourn him.

Ironically, Nkurunziza’s untimely death may well help mend his image. He left at the height of his political career, having ceded the presidency to a successor, setting in motion what might just turn out to be a peaceful transition of power. And whether by design or coincidence, he died in the rural heart of his country, in a hospital built under his presidency, far from the first-class medical centers in Western countries — where many of his fellow African leaders fly for the health care they don’t make available to the people they rule.

Andrea Filipi is a doctoral candidate in politics at the University of Cambridge, where she is writing a thesis on political mobilization in Burundi and the 2015 crisis.

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