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The startling death of Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza earlier this week raises new questions about the future direction of his country.
Nkurunziza’s legacy is not a happy one. After taking office in 2005, and particularly when he insisted on running for a third term in 2015, he isolated his country, violently silenced his critics, and repeatedly used fear and intimidation as governing strategies, touching off violence that led hundreds of thousands to flee the country. While many observers were surprised when he chose not to run for a fourth term this year, most expected that he would continue to wield power from retirement, limiting the autonomy of his hand-picked successor, Evariste Ndayishimiye, who handily won the election in May.
Despite the turmoil associated with his tenure in office, Nkurunziza’s death will be a source of alarm for many. Conflict-weary Burundians will not relish the prospect of a power struggle among those seeking to fill the vacuum he left. His sudden demise, reportedly due to a heart attack, may also prove fodder for conspiratorial thinking that can be poisonously weaponized by those seeking power at any price. The overall lack of transparency in Nkurunziza’s Burundi has heightened this risk. Take the widespread conjecture around his wife’s health as one example. The first lady was hospitalized in Kenya when her husband died, and many reports suggested that she was suffering from COVID-19 (several suggest that this was the real cause of her husband’s death, as well). Burundian authorities deny this was the case, but in a country where the official policy has been to suggest they enjoy divine protection from the virus, skepticism abounds. Nkurunziza believed that he faced enemies within his borders and beyond them (relations with neighboring Rwanda are particularly tense), and given the limited credibility of official statements, his surprising death provides space for alarming speculation.
But it is also possible that this week’s developments will create new opportunities for a less repressive future. While powerful military factions will not offer total freedom to any new leadership, the absence of the “supreme guide” hovering over the shoulder of President-elect Ndayishimiye could allow for a shift in direction. Consensus might be built to ease the country’s isolation as a means of stimulating the economy and easing the desperate poverty of many Burundians. Political skill will be essential to finding a way forward, but provided he is sworn in as planned in August, Ndayishimiye may find his presidency more consequential than originally planned.