BURUNDIAN President Pierre Nkurunziza was sworn in for a controversial third term in power Thursday, following elections last month, weeks of protests and a failed coup.
His third term has been condemned as unconstitutional by the opposition and provoked months of protests. There have been a string of killings since his reelection, including of a top general, killed in a rocket attack last month.
No foreign head of state was present, and only South Africa was represented at ministerial level, giving it the highest level political representation of any at the ceremony. The ceremony itself came as a surprise, announced only hours before.
Nkurunziza (C) smiles after being sworn at the Congress Palace in Kigobe district, Bujumbura on August 20, 2015. (Photo/AFP).
However, a tied-up corpse found early highlighted the bloodshed Burundi may still endure.
Local residents shuffled past the middle-aged man lying on a street in the capital, Bujumbura, some barely noticing what has become a common sight since violence flared in April and Nkurunziza dug his heels in against opposition to his rule.
At least 90 people have been killed in street battles between police and opposition supporters since April.
In recent weeks, the violence has shifted to the nights, with isolated shots ringing out and bodies being discovered in the morning. The fighting harks back to a 12-year civil war that claimed the lives of 300,000 people before it ended in 2005.
As Nkurunziza won last month’s vote, his opponents said he had violated the deal that brought peace a decade ago and limits him to two terms.
His supporters argue that his first term doesn’t count because he was chosen by parliament rather than by popular vote. “It’s not going to calm down,” Thierry Vircoulon, the Central Africa project director for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group research group, said in a phone interview.
The work of God
Nkurunziza didn’t sound daunted at his swearing in, perhaps because he thinks he has a formidable ally by his side - God.
He warned rebels who have taken up arms against his continued rule, after a failed coup, that they would be crushed by God. He also thanked God for his win in elections last month—polls the United Nations say were not free or fair.
The God script is one Nkurunziza rarely veers away from, and it goes many years back.
The 51-year-old former sports teacher, ex-rebel, born-again Christian and football fanatic, is from Burundi’s majority Hutu ethnic group.
Those who know the former guerrilla fighter who battled for years in the bush, said he was 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).
Presidential press chief Willy Nyamitwe has described Nkurunziza, whose football club is called Hallelujah FC, as being “close to the people”.
In a typical busy week he is 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.
A man of football, Nkurunziza has 10 small sports stadiums—the one lavish is located in his rural homeland and reserved for his exclusive use. (Photo/PN/FB).
On other days he meets with ordinary Burundians, Nyamitwe said, who praised 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,” countered a leading critic, Leonce Ngendakumana.
Visions in the swamp
Nkurunziza was born in 1964 to 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.
After high school he hoped to become an army officer or an economist—dreams made impossible by restrictions on the Hutu majority by the then ethnic Tutsi government, so 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 have taken to holding prayer meetings, where they preach to thousands, washing the feet of the poor.
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.
-Additional reporting by Bloomberg.