Ex-Fifa chief Blatter says offered Nkurunziza 'US-approved' football role to tempt him—but Burundi president wouldn't bite

"President Nkurunziza said he was 'very touched.' I urged him. He thought about it and after a moment he answered 'no, I will still run."

SEPP Blatter said Thursday that he offered Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza a role with FIFA to coax him from office amid a brewing political crisis, following a request for help from Switzerland and the US.

In an email to French news agency AFP, the Swiss foreign ministry said it sought Blatter’s aid in defusing tensions in Burundi, but gave no confirmation that Bern asked him to offer Nkurunziza a job or that the US was involved.

Before his dramatic downfall as FIFA’s president, Blatter often boasted about his ties with heads of state and on Thursday made clear that he repeatedly conducted informal diplomacy for Switzerland while travelling abroad.

“Switzerland, which wanted to protect Burundi’s interests, asked me to speak to President Pierre Nkurunziza, who is also a huge football fan, to persuade him not to run”, for reelection, Blatter told journalists at the launch of a new authorised biography, “Mission Football”.

The request was made in May of last year, as Nkurunziza was pursuing a controversial third term, which he went on to win in a vote that sparked an ongoing and deadly political crisis.

“We suggested that he become an ambassador for football within Africa and outside.

“President Nkurunziza said ‘I am very touched.’ I urged him. He thought about it and after a moment he answered ‘no, I will still run,” Blatter further said. 

Confirmed contact

Swiss foreign ministry spokesman Stefan von Below confirmed “there was a contact between State Secretary Yves Rossier and Mr. Joseph Blatter.

“The intention was to contribute to a peaceful solution in order to prevent the current crisis in Burundi,” von Below further said.

The Swiss foreign ministry “never asked president Nkurunziza not to run for the office of president again,” he added.

Before his dramatic downfall as FIFA’s president, Blatter often boasted about his ties with heads of state. Photo/AFP

Blatter told journalists that his Burundi intervention was not exceptional.

He said he typically informed Swiss diplomats about his travels and he was often helpful in making connections with heads of state.

“Football opens doors,” said Blatter, a native of the Swiss canton of Valais.

Reacting to an article in Swiss media about Blatter’s diplomatic efforts, Burundi’s presidential spokesman Willy Nyamittwe wrote in a tweet: “they tried everything they could to trample the fundamental principles of democracy in #Burundi. We defeated them.”

Nkurunziza, who claims he was chosen by God to lead Burundi, has previously said that a number of prominent figures urged him not to seek reelection but he ignored those calls, judging them messages from “the devil.”

US indictments

Blatter claimed in the book that the idea for him to be used as an envoy was initiated by the United States, but that could not be immediately confirmed.

If true, the request for Blatter’s help would have come just before the US justice department unsealed a raft of indictments over corruption in world football going back decades.

The US indictments, announced on May 27, kicked off the unprecedented crisis at FIFA, with Swiss police arresting seven football officials and sports marketing executives in a dawn raid at a Zurich luxury hotel. 

Switzerland opened a criminal investigation targeting Blatter in September.

He has since been banned from football for six years over ethics violations, and replaced as FIFA’s president by Gianni Infantino. 

Burundi’s year-long political crisis has killed more than 400 people and forced more than 250,000 others to flee the country, raising fears of a return to the 1993-2006 civil war that claimed an estimated 300,000 lives.

Washington this week accused Nkurunziza’s government of perpetuating the crisis, with Burundi’s security forces suspected of committing torture, arbitrary arrests and possibly summary executions.

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