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Obituary: Pierre Nkurunziza

Sports teacher and Hutu rebel leader who became president of Burundi


AUTHORITARIAN: Pierre Nkurunziza. Sources say his death was due to Covid, which he claimed Burundi had been spared by God

AUTHORITARIAN: Pierre Nkurunziza. Sources say his death was due to Covid, which he claimed Burundi had been spared by God


AUTHORITARIAN: Pierre Nkurunziza. Sources say his death was due to Covid, which he claimed Burundi had been spared by God

Pierre Nkurunziza, the president of Burundi, who died last Monday aged 55, was a former sports instructor-turned-Hutu rebel leader who came to power in Africa's poorest country in an election in 2005 after the 12-year Hutu-Tutsi civil war that left 300,000 people dead.

The Arusha peace accords that ended the conflict ensured that the national and local government, parliament and the senate would be composed of both Hutu and Tutsis, split 60-40. There was surprise when the election (in which members of parliament were the voters and Nkurunziza the sole candidate) passed off peacefully. But that left the even more daunting challenge of rebuilding the country.

Nkurunziza implemented the Arusha Accords and presided over the demobilisation of the final Hutu rebel group from the civil war. However, he did little to curb political factionalism and corruption - in his first few years in power tit-for-tat violence between political parties killed scores of activists - and as time went on his authoritarian instincts came increasingly to the fore.

Judges were kidnapped; an influential whistle-blower was stabbed in the back; homosexuality was outlawed and a researcher for Human Rights Watch was ejected from the country for chronicling numerous human rights abuses.

Nkurunziza won a second term in 2010, when the opposition boycotted the vote, accusing the government of intimidation, but discontent continued to grow. Even outdoor jogging was banned, supposedly because it might lead to demonstrations.

When, in 2015 Nkurunziza announced his intention to stand for a third term, ostensibly contrary to the Arusha Accords, there were protests met with extreme violence by the youth wing of the ruling CNDD-FDD party, known as the Imbonerakure, and the security forces, and an unsuccessful coup attempt.

Nkurunziza maintained his first term did not count as he had been elected by parliament, not the people - a contention that was supported by Burundi's constitutional court, although one of the judges fled the country, claiming its members had received death threats. In June 2015, Nkurunziza won a third term with 70pc of the vote.

Security forces launched a crackdown that killed hundreds and caused more than 400,000 to flee Burundi. In 2017 a UN inquiry documented killings, torture and rape committed by security officers, and urged the International Criminal Court to open an investigation. In response, Nkurunziza withdrew Burundi's membership of the court and shut the local UN human rights office. Donors, including the EU, decided to withhold financial support.

A self-described born-again Christian, Nkurunziza went in for public displays of faith, travelling round the country with his own choir. When the coronavirus pandemic hit Africa, the Burundian government insisted that its country had been spared because of its faith in God and expelled the WHO's top official and his coronavirus team.

The official reason given for Nkurunziza's death was a heart attack, but opposition sources claimed he had been undergoing treatment for Covid-19, his wife Denise having reportedly been admitted to a private hospital in Kenya last month after developing symptoms of the virus.

One of six children, Pierre Nkurunziza was born on December 18, 1964 in Bujumbura. His father, a politician from the Hutu ethnic group, was killed in genocidal violence in 1972. His mother was from the Tutsi ethnic group.

After taking a degree in physical education at the University of Burundi, Nkurunziza taught at a school in Muramvya before becoming an assistant lecturer at his old university in 1992.

Following the outbreak of the Burundian civil war in 1993, he joined the Hutu rebel group National Council for the Defence of Democracy - Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), of which he became president, pressing for a political solution to the conflict.

During his time as a PE teacher, Nkurunziza was also a football coach. As president he built dozens of stadiums and often featured in his own team's - Haleluya FC - starting line in games across the country.

In February 2018, however, after a game against a team from the northern Burundian town of Kiremba, two officials from the opposing team were arrested, charged with "conspiracy against the president" and imprisoned, after their players made Nkurunziza "fall several times" .

Later that year Burundians voted in a referendum that paved the way for Nkurunziza to stay in power until 2034. Opposition sources claimed that ruling party stooges had systematically accompanied voters into booths, while members of the Imbonerakure had urged supporters to harass opposition members.

But as the presidential election approached in May this year Nkurunziza was forced to step aside and the elections were won by Evariste Ndayishimiye in what the opposition claimed was a rigged poll. Nkurunziza was due to step down in August.

© Telegraph