Pierre Nkurunziza had only a few weeks to go as president of Burundi, before handing over power to his recently elected successor, Evariste Ndayishimiye. Then the lights went out.
Nkurunziza died Monday evening, June 8, after suffering a cardiac arrest, according to an official government statement. He was 55, and the youngest leader in the East African Community.
Coming to power in 2005 after a bitter civil war that raged from 1993 in which it is estimated up to 300,000 people were killed, Nkurunziza had his work cut out for him. But, as post-conflict Uganda and Rwanda show, there is also great opportunity in the rubble of war, because it provides imaginative leaders a lot of opportunity to build new things. And if they came to power at the head of a rebel army, they usually have a high level of authority to push through reforms with little to opposition.
Nkurunziza did calm Burundi, treading the delicate balance between Hutu and Tutsi factions on which a peace settlement had been built, but he soon slipped, with Burundi becoming the most corrupt country in East Africa.
In 2005, the environment in East Africa and Africa was rich for rebuilding projects. A peace settlement had just been inked to end nearly three decades of civil war in Sudan. In Kenya, Mwai Kibaki had been elected three years earlier, and Kenya was getting its old mojo back. The pacts that had ended the bloody conflict in the “Second DR Congo War” were staggering along.
The continent was littered with meatier leaders who could hold a rookie president’s hand than it has today; the ebullient Olusegun Obasanjo was in the seat in Nigeria, and cerebral Thabo Mbeki in South Africa.
The “Africa Rising” wave was beginning to blow, and shrewd leaders were capitalising on the doors it was opening globally. Nkurunziza did show up to the party occasionally.
In July 2007 he took Burundi into the EAC, and weeks later, though his country was still rickety, he dug deep and sent Burundi troops to join Uganda in the dangerous African Union Peacekeeping Mission in Somalia (Amisom).
It all unravelled in 2015, when he made a power grab, deciding to stay on for a third term.
A failed coup followed, and Burundi fell off the wagon back into the fire. Nkurunziza became hyper provincial, a cave man who didn’t wander far off from State House and his village.
Nearly 2,000 Burundians are estimated to have been killed in the violence that followed, and over 300,000 fled as refugees to neighbouring countries.
The last five years of his rule became notable for torture, rape and murder by his security forces. Yet, in the end, Nkurunziza became the first guerrilla leader president, who threw in the towel after 15 years, and didn’t fight to serve out a presidency for life.
With his passing, Ndayishimiye, at 52 also the youngest EAC leader, has a chance to beat his own path without having to defer to the “Eternal Supreme Guide”.
If it’s any consolation, he will not be quickly forgotten. For better or worse, many will remember that Nkurunziza was here, for a few years to come.
Charles Onyango-Obbo is a journalist, writer, and curator of the “Wall of Great Africans”. [email protected]