Burundi convened an emergency cabinet meeting on Thursday to discuss a way forward after the sudden death of President Pierre Nkurunziza, who took office following a bloody civil war in 2005.
Nkurunziza, who died on Monday aged 55, had been due to step down in August after his surprise decision not to run in an election last month won by the ruling party’s handpicked successor.
But his death has raised uncertainty and fears of a power struggle in a country that has witnessed violent political upheaval, a refugee exodus and a bloody civil war in its recent history.
The government called a ministerial meeting to discuss “the management of the situation following the unexpected death” of Nkurunziza, who according to the government, died of a heart attack after feeling unwell for two days.
“We will in particular sign the referral to the constitutional court to declare the presidency definitively vacant,” a ministerial source told AFP news agency on condition of anonymity. The meeting will be chaired by the first vice president, Gaston Sindimwo.
Under the constitution, the president of the National Assembly, Pascal Nyabenda, should take over on an interim basis before President-elect Evariste Ndayishimiye’s swearing-in in August.
Nelleke van de Walle, from the International Crisis Group, said Nyabenda was chosen to rule by Nkurunziza and it could mean trouble ahead in a struggle for power.
“[President-elect] Evariste was chosen by other generals so this could indicate there might be infighting in the coming weeks with different generals backing different candidates,” she told Al Jazeera.
The path forward will be determined not by the ministers but an innermost “crisis committee” answering to the president’s office, the source said.
This group is made up of powerful generals who, like Nkurunziza, ruled for 15 often tumultuous years, emerging from the ethnic Hutu rebellion during Burundi’s long civil war that ended in 2005.
“In reality, it is not the council of ministers that will decide what will happen … Everything has been decided within the crisis committee that sits with the presidency,” said the source.
A ruling CNDD-FDD official said the government “was leaning towards accelerating the investiture of the president-elect” instead of making interim arrangements.
“It will be legitimate, and not at all shocking, and above all will spare General Ndayishimiye a long period of uncertainty and immobility that is synonymous with danger,” a diplomat said on condition of anonymity.
Nkurunziza, an evangelical who believed he was chosen by God to rule the East African nation, fostered a personality cult around his leadership.
The ruling party declared him a “visionary” and “supreme guide for patriotism”, and some officials likened his death to a catastrophe.
But he did not wield power alone, and analysts say his death could provoke a power struggle among the upper echelons of government.
Nkurunziza had wanted Nyabenda to succeed him, but the generals opted for Ndayishimiye who won the May 20 election. While also a general, Ndayishimiye is not a regime hardliner, and Nkurunziza was expected to continue to play a significant role.
His 2015 run for a third term in office sparked protests and a failed coup, with violence leaving at least 1,200 people dead while some 400,000 fled the country.
A climate of fear marked by a crackdown on the opposition and media settled over Burundi in the years following.
Rumours swirled on social media about his death, with some suspecting he had been infected by the coronavirus.
His wife, first lady Denise Bucumi, who was recovering from the coronavirus in a Nairobi hospital, flew back to Bujumbura late on Tuesday.