Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza rarely makes East African or international news headlines.
If you asked many people on the street of any of the East African Community (EAC)* capitals, they will probably tell he is an election-stealing oppressor, who leads a corrupt government of a poor country, but had the great heart to send his army to keep the peace in troubled Somalia.
But those who know Nkurunziza well, even some intellectuals who are sympathetic to the opposition, say that image is both wrong, and totally misses the fact that the Burundian president is a formidable politician.
True, they say, the playing ground was not level in last July’s election that was boycotted by the opposition, but they also believe Nkurunziza would still have trounced the field in an open clean race.
Nkurunziza is the ultimate populist, who is much loved by the poor people in the countryside, but despised by the cappuccino set in the capital Bujumbura.
Nkurunziza generally hates the capital Bujumbura, and spends little time there. Most of the time he is in the villages, digging and planting trees – especially avocado trees – with peasants. A group of diplomats who went to see him early last year, told this writer they were advised that if they wanted to see “His Excellency”, they had to go to the country where he was.
They arrived in their suits to find him in the bush with hoe in hand, tilling the land with adoring rural folks. He gave them the nod, and it became clear what they had to do. They took off their jackets, fancy ties, rolled up their sleeves, and picked hoes. They discussed with His Excellency as they dug along. The meeting went extremely well.
Nkurunziza’s preferred attire on occasions like this is a tracksuit and sneakers. He loves them and has very many. He has his designer suits too, of course, but the tracksuits give him the much-needed common touch. Sometimes he wears them five days in a week or more if he has no official meetings.
The frequent sight of a track suit-clad Nkurunziza planting avocado trees has earned him the nickname the “Avocado President”. Among the middle classes, the nickname is often spat out with contempt.
But a Bujumbura journalist (himself not a lover of Nkurunziza) tells me that is where the critics lose the plot. Still recovering from a long war, most Burundians are desperately poor. These poor people and the working class can, occasionally, afford bread. But they can’t afford butter.
In Burundi, avocado is the most popular form of “butter” for the underclass. By planting the avocado, Nkurunziza has taken the most emotional route to the hearts of Burundi’s poor – through their stomachs.
He is also big on religion, and spends as much praying – if not more – than he does on the affairs of state. A Born Again Christian, the president is always organising prayer meetings. Some of the prayers sessions last up to 2am in the mornings, according to sources.
If your star is to rise in Nkurunziza’s Burundi, it probably won’t be through great professional work. It is through prayer. Those who pray with Nkurunziza into the wee hours of the morning are smiled upon and flourish. Those who don’t are ignored or end up with stunted careers.
The Nkurunziza State House is so prayerful, on July 2 First Lady Denise Nkurunziza became perhaps the First Lady in the world to be ordained a pastor.
Bishop Arthur Kitonga, one of the leaders of the African Evangelical Association, which is over 100 million members strong in 34 African countries, performed the honours. Church leaders showered First Lady Denise with praises that would embarrass the Virgin Mary.
First Lady Denise does not have Uganda First Lady Janet Museveni’s stripped-down designer chic, nor First Lady Jeanette Kagame’s statuesque confidence and elegance. She is a demure woman, with a pious smile; a cross between Tanzania First Lady Salma Kikwete and Kenya’s First Lady Lucy Kibaki – but younger of course.
But most striking is that she wears the tragedy of Burundi’s recent troubled history on her face – it is unmistakable. Contemplating her, one begins to feel that maybe little of President Nkurunziza’s religiosity is affected for cynical political reasons. That his household is anchored in the wrenching daily reality of Burundi.
So on most Saturdays Nkurunziza joins the people in communal cleaning activities. He dons his tracksuit, picks a broom, occasionally a slasher, and gets to work. For many of the ordinary folks who labour with him, an avocado may just be what they need most when they are done.
*The East African Community bloc comprises the five countries of Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda and has a combined population of 140 million.
[email protected] & Twitter: @cobbo3