Burundi’s government has announced the sudden death of President Pierre Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader who took office following a bloody civil war in 2005.
He was 55.
In a statement on Tuesday, the government said Nkurunziza had died of heart failure.
It came just weeks before the president was meant to hand over power to political ally Evariste Ndayishimiye, the winner of last month’s presidential election, bringing down the curtain on a 15-year reign whose latter part was marked by political violence and increasing criticism over the government’s response to dissent.
The former university teacher was born in 1964 in the country’s economic capital, Bujumbura, less than two years after Burundi gained independence from Belgium.
One of six children, Nkurunziza was the son of a Tutsi assistant nurse mother and a Hutu politician father, Eustache Ngabisha, who had served as a governor before being killed in 1972 during a wave of ethnic violence against the Hutus.
In 1993, Burundi was plunged into a civil war between Hutu rebels and the Tutsi-dominated army. Two years later, Nkurunziza narrowly survived an attack targeting Hutu at the University of Burundi and then actively joined the Forces for the Defence of Democracy (FDD) group.
The charismatic Nkurunziza rose through its ranks and in 2003 emerged as the FDD’s leader.
In 1998, a Burundian court sentenced Nkurunziza to death in absentia for planting landmines that led to the death of several people.
He was given an amnesty following the signing of a 2003 peace deal that ended the brutal conflict that killed 300,000 Burundians.
Nkurunziza initially served as the minister of good governance in a transitional administration before taking Burundi’s highest post in August 2005 after legislators elected him president.
Upon assuming office, Nkurunziza faced the significant challenges of maintaining peace and stability in the country, as well as rebuilding its war-battered economy.
“He had the aim of uniting the country and bringing peace. He managed to do that between 2005 and 2015. Things were good in the first 10 years of his time as president,” Pascal Niyonizigiye, a professor of international relations at the University of Burundi, told Al Jazeera.
Along with launching infrastructure projects, Nkurunziza oversaw the disarmament of several armed groups in Burundi. In 2007, he sent troops to Somalia as part of an African Union peacekeeping mission to prevent al-Shabab, an al-Qaeda-linked armed group, from overrunning the Horn of Africa country’s government.
“We mourn the passing of His Excellency President Pierre Nkurunziza. He was a great friend of Somalia,” Somalia’s President Mohamed Abdullahi said late on Tuesday.
The East African Community, a regional bloc, also said in a statement: “Nkurunziza’s contribution to the re-establishment of constitutional order, peace, ethnic tranquility, rights and equality for all since his ascendancy to power in 2005 in Burundi cannot be overemphasised.”
“His commitment to security and rights for all irrespective of social, ethnic, religious or political background remains a beacon on which Burundians can build on to further their development objectives,” it added.
In June 2010, Nkurunziza comfortably won a second term in office after all six of his challengers boycotted the polls alleging fraud.
During this time, human rights groups continued to criticise Nkurunziza over his administration’s treatment of journalists critical of its policies and its alleged refusal to acknowledge dissent.
Things took a turn for the worse in April 2015 when Nkurunziza’s controversial decision to seek a third term in office plunged the country into widespread violence that left hundreds of people dead.
Opponents saw Nkurunziza’s bid as a violation of the constitution as well as the 2000 Arusha Agreement that had paved the way to ending the country’s war.
Large-scale protests often led to clashes with the security forces, while a coup attempt launched in May 2015 when Nkurunziza was abroad was swiftly foiled. Amid growing unrest and a crackdown by security forces, more than 400,000 people were forced to flee to neighbouring countries.
Despite several delays, an opposition boycott and international pressure, the polls were held in July 2015, with Nkurunziza winning the third term.
“After the 2015 elections, the situation in the country has not been good – both in terms of stability and economically. Donors have cut off funding and placed sanctions on Burundi,” Niyonizigiye said.
In 2017, Nkurunziza formally withdrew Burundi from the International Criminal Court (ICC) – the first country to do so – amid accusations the court was focusing too much on the continent. In 2018, a United Nations Commission of Inquiry said crimes against humanity were still being committed in Burundi, and last year the UN said it was forced to close its human rights office in the country. The government rejected the commission’s allegations.
Meanwhile, independent media houses were shut down and the country tumbled down the press freedom index.
A 2018 referendum cleared the way for Nkurunziza to potentially stay in power until 2034, but the president later surprised observers by deciding not to run in this year’s election and back Ndayishimiye, the candidate of the governing CNDD-FDD party.
In April, weeks before the May 20 polls, Human Rights Watch said “violence and repression have been the hallmark of politics in Burundi since 2015”, adding that authorities and governing party members were using “fear and repression against the political opposition and the last remaining independent organizations and media”.
Following Ndayishimiye’s election win, Nkurunziza, an avid football fan and until his death owner of a team, was to receive the title “Supreme Guide” after handing over power in August. He was also to be granted a luxury villa and a one-off payment of more than $500,000.
Meanwhile, on the streets of Bujumbura, some residents said they would remember the former leader, a born-again Christian known for his preaching, for the good things he did for their country.
“I will remember him for the advice he gave us. He always told us to love our country. He always put God first and someone who does that will not face hardships in life,” Achel Niyongere told Al Jazeera.
Patrick Harakandi added: “He is the first president to govern Burundi until he finished his term. He made history. He ruled Burundi for 15 years without a civil war.”
Follow Hamza Mohamed on Twitter: @Hamza_Africa