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Burundi says president dead of heart attack; media says he had COVID-19

Pierre Nkurunziza, 56, sought to downplay pandemic and was slammed for large gatherings in recent elections; critics say he left a ‘legacy of ruthless repression’

Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza speaks to the media after casting his vote in the constitutional referendum in Buye, northern Burundi, May 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Berthier Mugiraneza, File)
Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza speaks to the media after casting his vote in the constitutional referendum in Buye, northern Burundi, May 17, 2018. (AP Photo/Berthier Mugiraneza, File)

Burundi’s government announced Tuesday that President Pierre Nkurunziza had died of a heart attack at age 56, ending a 15-year-rule marked by deadly political violence and a historic withdrawal from the International Criminal Court (ICC).

However, local media reported that he died of COVID-19, which his wife had caught, despite his regime downplaying the pandemic.

The statement posted on social media said the president was admitted to a hospital overnight Saturday after not feeling well. He appeared better Sunday but “to very great surprise” his health abruptly worsened Monday morning, and several hours of effort failed to revive him.

Burundi’s government has declared a week of mourning.

Nkurunziza’s death comes weeks before president-elect and ruling party candidate Evariste Ndayishimiye was expected to be sworn in after winning the May election. It was not immediately clear what the government’s steps will be and a spokesman was not available for comment.

Despite the government’s statement, some in Burundi wondered whether Nkurunziza died of COVOD-19 instead. “When Nkurunziza’s wife was flown to Kenya suffering from COVID-19, many in Burundi suspected the president himself was sick,” said Justin Nyabenda, a resident in Bujumbura.

The government has downplayed the virus and held the election and large campaign rallies in spite of the threat. Authorities kicked out the World Health Organization’s top official in the country just days before the election after the WHO raised concerns about crowded rallies. The country has confirmed 83 virus cases.

Nkurunziza took office in 2005, chosen by lawmakers to lead the East African nation after the 1993-2005 civil war killed about 300,000 people. The peace process known as the Arusha Accords specified that a president’s term can be renewed only once.

But Nkurunziza, who won a second term in 2010, announced he was eligible for a third term in 2015 because he had not been chosen the first time by universal suffrage.

Burundi Army General Evariste Ndayishimiye, left, is accompanied by president Pierre Nkurunziza, right, after Ndayishimiye was chosen as the party’s presidential candidate at a national conference for the ruling CNDD-FDD party in the rural province of Gitega, Burundi, January 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Berthier Mugiraneza, File)

The deadly turmoil that followed badly damaged ties with the international community, and Burundi became the first country to leave the ICC after it started investigating allegations of abuses. The United Nations human rights office reported more than 300 extrajudicial killings and was later kicked out of the country.

Burundi’s government has denied allegations it targets its people, calling them malicious propaganda by dissidents.

Nkurunziza survived a coup attempt shortly after the 2015 vote. International donors cut support, leaving the government struggling.

Many Burundians were surprised when the president announced in 2018 that he was serving his last term. The government approved legislation meant to bestow upon Nkurunziza the title of “paramount leader” once he stepped down.

Nkrurunziza “leaves behind a legacy of ruthless repression,” said Lewis Mudge, Central Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “He ruled through fear to erect a system synonymous with the worst human rights abuses: extrajudicial killings, torture, disappearances, and the systematic crushing of dissent.”

Burundi must investigate the crimes committed during Nkurunziza’s rule, said Mudge. “As long as these abuses go unpunished,” he said, “this dark legacy will hang over Burundi for many years to come.”

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