Burundi's Nkurunziza leaves a mixed legacy

Saturday June 13 2020

Pierre Nkurunziza was a dominant figure in Burundi’s politics in the last 26 years. PHOTO | FILE | NATION MEDIA GROUP


Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza, who died of a heart attack aged 55 according to an official statement released on Tuesday, has left behind a mixed legacy.

Viewed as a pan- Africanist by his East African Community (EAC) peers and as a ruthless dictator by his critics, Nkurunziza was a dominant figure in Burundi’s politics in the last 26 years.

In life, he always maintained that he had lived part of his youthful years in Kenya, and even mastered the diverse cultures of its people. Yet he still had a stunning attachment to his native culture.

Whenever it was his turn to lead the EAC’s Heads of State Summit, for instance, the age-old Royal Drums of Burundi, would feature as prominently as the regional anthem.

Within the EAC bloc, he will probably be remembered as a leader who advocated for use of the English language in the Francophone state as part of his efforts to speed up cultural integration with other EAC members.

"Death has robbed East Africa of a prominent leader whose contribution to the integration and progress of the region shall be sorely missed,” President Uhuru Kenyatta said in a statement.


Libérat Mfumukeko, a Burundi national who serves as EAC’s Secretary- General, said in a statement on June 9: “President Nkurunziza’s unequivocally decided to lead Burundi into the community in 2007, having figured out that the economic, social and political homogeneity of the region provided vast opportunities for his country’s economic recovery and national reconciliation.”

Nkurunziza’s more than two decades in power, however, did little to defuse the perennial tensions with neighbouring Rwanda.

Critics, however, see a man who oversaw a reign of torture, rape and murder by his security forces that drove hundreds of thousands of citizens into exile.

He was due to step down in August after his party’s candidate won elections last month, and had been president since 2005.

He came to power at the end of Burundi’s 12-year civil war, which killed 300,000 people and was driven by similar ethnic tensions as the 1994 Genocide in neighbouring Rwanda, where Hutu extremists slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus.

Nkurunziza, a former leader of a Hutu rebel group, was elected by lawmakers after promising peace but oversaw a crackdown on political opponents and the media when he was re-elected five years later. When he stood for a third time in 2015, opponents said it violated a two-term constitutional limit. His supporters beat, tortured and executed activists, suspected opponents and journalists.

After he foiled an attempted coup, more than 1,000 Burundians were killed in clashes with security forces and more than 400,000 people fled abroad. The economy was ruined after donors cut aid.

In 2018, Burundians voted in a referendum that cleared the way for Nkurunziza to stay in power until 2034. The opposition said the ruling party’s agents had accompanied voters into voting booths. Many people told Reuters they voted out of fear.

Nkurunziza and his wife began to make the divine origin of the president’s power a central tenet of their speeches. In 2019, he changed the country’s motto from “Unity, Labour, Development” to “God, King, Burundi”.


A former sports teacher at a university, Nkurunziza was a lifelong fitness and football enthusiast and an evangelical Christian.

He lost his father, a civil servant, during mass killings of ethnic Hutus by the majority Tutsi army in 1972. He frequently spoken about the misery his family suffered after his father’s death. “We became orphans and led a hard life,” he said. “They (the killers) took all nice stuff from the house, which plunged the family into desolation.”

During the civil war, he fought in the rebel group that became the ruling party, first becoming a minister in a transitional government in 2003 before parliament elected him president in 2005. A few relatively peaceful years followed.

A curfew that had been in place since 1972 was lifted in 2006. Burundian soldiers joined an African Union peacekeeping force in Somalia. The Paris Club group of creditors cancelled the country’s debt in 2009.

But after the foiled coup in 2015, Nkurunziza became increasingly isolated. He only left Burundi for a single day’s trip to neighbouring Tanzania, which hosts more than 200,000 Burundian refugees.

His government rejected reports of its abuses by the United Nations and other international groups.

Burundi quit the International Criminal Court in 2017, the first African nation to do so, after the court said it would investigate violence in the country.


In 2019, declaring it had made sufficient progress in human rights, the government forced the United Nations to shut its local human rights office after 23 years. Schoolgirls who defaced the president’s portrait were arrested. The same year, a UN report documented abuses by the security forces and youth wing of the ruling party.

“Bodies are regularly found in public places ... many people disappear,” the report said, noting rape by ruling party activists was common. “Some of these rapes were committed at night in victims’ homes, in front of their children.”

After some Western governments suspended budget support to the government, Burundi forced all citizens to pay mandatory public “contributions” to state coffers from 2016 to mid-2019.

The government blamed the economic crisis, which caused crippling shortages of medicine and fuel, on currency speculators and even donor governments.

Three-quarters of the population live in poverty and life expectancy is around 57 years, according to the World Bank, a decade lower than Rwanda.

Despite his coloured legacy, the region’s business community is full of praise for the departed leader.

Dr Peter Mathuki, the Chief Executive Officer of the East African Business Council, said in a June 9 statement: “His vision and passion for regional integration and Pan Africanism will always live in our hearts emboldening the prosperity of our beloved East African region”.