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Death and a chance for change

•The late Pierre Nkurunziza

By Pauline Bax and Antony Sguazzin

The sudden death of Burundi’s outgoing leader, Pierre Nkurunziza, is an opportunity to put the country on a better path. It may not happen.
Nkurunziza, who was announced to have died of a heart attack after playing volleyball, was due to cede power in August to a former rebel commander handpicked by the ruling party. He would have remained an important power broker.
President-elect, Evariste Ndayishimiye, will need to reach out to the opposition who rejected election results as well as the international community given Burundi’s isolation that followed Nkurunziza’s controversial extended stay in power. That could lay a foundation to rebuild one of the world’s poorest nations.

Last month, Burundi became the first African country to hold general elections since the coronavirus outbreak. Like neighbouring Tanzania, the government ignored the pandemic’s dangers, with party officials proclaiming that God would protect the nation.

Nkurunziza, who died at 55 after 15 years in office, attended campaign rallies that drew thousands and danced on stage with his wife. Two weeks ago, she was evacuated to Kenya to seek treatment for suspected Covid-19, raising suspicion among analysts and diplomats that Nkurunziza and people within his inner circle were exposed to the virus.
Misinformation and denial are typical in Burundi, where thousands remain buried in mass graves more than a decade after devastating ethnic strife. Nkurunziza leaves a legacy of repression and state-sanctioned violence against anyone who dares speak up against the ruling party.
The media has been silenced, aid organisations are struggling to operate and diplomats are under surveillance.
A signal that Ndayishimiye intends to change the way the country is governed would be transparency about the extent of the spread of the virus among the nation’s rulers — for a start. (Bloomberg)

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