A former sports teacher, ex-rebel, born-again Christian and football fanatic, Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza, the subject of a coup attempt Wednesday, has divided the nation over his bid to secure a third term in office.
A top Burundian general announced the overthrow of Nkurunziza, following weeks of violent protests against his re-election bid.
The announcement by General Godefroid Niyombare came just hours after the president left for neighbouring Tanzania for talks with regional leaders on ending the crisis.
Violent clashes between protesters and security forces began last month following the announcement that 51-year-old Nkurunziza, from Burundi’s majority Hutu ethnic group, would run in June elections — something his opponents say is a violation of the constitution and a peace deal that ended Burundi’s civil war in 2006.
Over 20 people have been killed and scores wounded since late April, when Burundi’s ruling CNDD-FDD party nominated Nkurunziza to stand for re-election in the June 26 polls.
But those who know the former guerrilla fighter, who battled for years in the bush and believes he took the presidency with divine backing, say he is determined to hold onto his seat in the presidential palace.
“Nkurunziza has an instinct for survival, his determination to hold onto power is very high,” said Innocent Muhozi, from the press rights group, Observatoire de la Presse du Burundi (OPB).
A brief statement on Twitter from the presidency on Wednesday, after the coup announcement, said: “The situation is under control, there is no coup in Burundi.”
However, with the president out of the country, it remained to be seen whether that tweet was more based on fact or wishful thinking.
– Swimming, office, football –
Presidential press chief Willy Nyamitwe has described Nkurunziza as being “close to the people”.
In a typical busy week he would be up early for an hour of swimming before arriving at his office by 6:30 am to tackle the business of state, before leaving mid-afternoon for a game of football or basketball at a private property on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.
On other days he meets with ordinary Burundians, Nyamitwe said recently, praising a leader who “built more schools than all his predecessors in 45 years of independence” from Belgium.
More than 5,000 schools have been built, as well as 10 sports stadiums – the most lavish of which is located in his rural homeland of Buye and reserved for his exclusive use.
“He spends his time… building schools, plastering cement or mud, playing football or praying, and does not have time to deal with issues,” leading critic Leonce Ngendakumana, head of the opposition FRODEBU party has countered.
Nkurunziza did find time in February to sack General Niyombare from his position as chief of intelligence after he opposed the president’s attempt to stay in office.
– Visions in the swamp –
Nkurunziza was born in 1964 into a wealthy family, the son of a member of parliament.
He was still a schoolboy when his father was killed in one of a string of ethnic massacres in 1972 that decimated the Hutu elite.
At the end of high school, he wanted to become an army officer or an economist — dreams made impossible by restrictions on the Hutu by the then ethnic Tutsi government, and he ended up a sports teacher.
He joined the Hutu rebellion in 1995, finding religion as a solace after he was badly wounded in the leg, seeing visions when he was hiding out in remote swamps that one day he would be president.
“Nkurunziza indeed believes he is president by divine will… and he therefore organises his life and government around these values,” said Nyamitwe.
He and wife Denise had taken to holding prayers meetings, where they preach to thousands, washing the feet of the poor.
Burundi’s constitution only allows a president to be elected twice — for a total of 10 years in power — but Nkurunziza argues he has only been directly elected by the people once. In power since 2005, when he was selected by parliament, he was re-elected in 2010.
Party officials who have publicly opposed a third term have lost their jobs, while others have been jailed or gone into hiding.
“Under a pleasant exterior lies a ruthless man,” said one former close associate.