Our prophet, saviour, messiah: Burundi president seen as 'divine' hero in rural homeland

Pierre Nkurunziza enjoys deep support in the hinterland, and this is why it is difficult to dislodge him.

ON the streets of Burundi’s capital, protesters have spent a month fighting running battles with police, erecting barricades and demanding President Pierre Nkurunziza end his third term bid for power.

Here in the lush green farmlands outside the capital, in the rolling hills of Bundanza district, die-hard supporters of the ruling CNDD-FDD party say the president is a prophet.

“We are coming to greet the saviour,” said Sylvie, a 56-year old farmer and Nkurunziza loyalist.

Dancing and singing, thousands waited to greet the president as he visited this farming community on Saturday, some 30 kilometres (20 miles) outside the capital Bujumbura.

“Without Pierre Nkurunziza, I would have died with my six children,” said the smiling woman, saying the president’s then rebel CNDD-FDD ethnic Hutu guerrillas protected her during the 13-year civil war with the then Tutsi-dominated army. 

“Pierre Nkurunziza saved me.”

Burundi’s crisis, which began in late April after the ruling party nominated Nkurunziza to stand again in the June 26 presidential election, deepened last week when a top general staged a failed coup attempt.

Opposition and rights groups say that Nkurunziza’s bid for a third five-year term violates the constitution and conditions of a peace deal that ended the war in 2006.

 ‘Divine backing’

Nkurunziza, a born-again Christian who believes he has divine backing to lead the country, argues that his first term did not count as he was elected by parliament, not directly by the people.

Here, he is treated almost like a god. As his motorcade approaches, surrounded by heavy security, clothes are placed on the road as though mimicking the triumphant entry of Jesus Christ into Jerusalem.

Packed crowds line the road to cheer and welcome him, dressed in caps and T-shirts promoting the ruling party, and waving balloons in green, white and red, the national colours.

“I kiss you, I give you peace,” Nkurunziza tells the crowds, weaving metaphors and allegories into his political rhetoric. An evangelical pastor, Nkurunziza’s almost messianic image holds firm in these pious rural areas, where he has genuine popularity.

 ‘President for life!’

Speeches are interspersed with song. “The CNDD-FDD is a gift of God to Burundians. We must help those who are lost to find the right path,” one song plays.

For Jeannette, an unemployed 23-year-old, Nkurunziza is a “providential man”—a gift from the heavens.

“When I look at him in the face, he is the only one” able to be president, said the woman, wearing clothes printed with the colours of the party.

More than 110,000 people have fled the violence to neighbouring countries, according to the United Nations, and international concerns are growing over the risk of a return to the dark days of the 1993-2006 civil war.

But people here say Nkurunziza is the one keeping the peace.

“Those who are against a third mandate of Pierre Nkurunziza are not normal, they want to return the country to the time of civil war,” said Jeannette, who called on protesters to “join the good side.”

“The president has brought peace to Burundi, he did many things for the country,” said farmer Emmanuel, a 43-year old CNDD-FDD loyalist. “I’m ready to elect him for a third term.”

While those in the capital chant “no to the third term!”, his supporters want to re-elect Nkurunziza—again and again.

“We will vote for him until the return of Jesus Christ, that is, until the end of time,” said Sylvie with a laugh, adding that for her, Nkurunziza “should be president for life.”

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