Nairobi, Kenya | AFP | Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza is an evangelical who believes he was chosen by God to rule the east African nation, and plans to do so for as long as possible.
The 54-year-old former rebel is seeking to extend his rule with a raft of constitutional changes that are the subject of a referendum on Thursday. If approved, he could in theory stay in power until 2034.
Nkurunziza is fuelled by a “messianic vision” of his own rule, the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said in a report ahead of the vote.
In 2015, Nkurunziza brushed aside international condemnation to seek a third term. He plunged Burundi into a spiral that has killed 1,200 people, displaced hundreds of thousands and left most of Nkurunziza’s critics silenced or exiled.
At that year’s swearing-in, he declared God was on his side and warned his enemies “will be scattered like flour thrown into the air — as the God of heaven is a witness.”
Today, Nkurunziza is set on rewriting the national charter to join the swelling ranks of African leaders who cling to power beyond their original constitutional limits.
Nkurunziza, from Burundi’s majority Hutu ethnic group, 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 presidential spokesman Willy Nyamitwe.
Nkurunziza spends at least half of every week travelling with his football team Alleluia FC and his choir “Komeza gusenga” which means “pray non-stop” in the local Kirundi language.
He and wife Denise also hold prayer meetings, where they preach to thousands, washing the feet of the poor.
– Visionary and guru –
In power since 2005, when he was selected by parliament, Nkurunziza was re-elected in 2010 and went on to argue in 2015 that this meant he had only been directly elected once.
Since his contested 2015 victory, Nkurunziza’s critics increasingly decry his slide into politico-religious mysticism and the growing cult of personality around the president.
The ruling CNDD-FDD officially bestowed upon him the title of “visionary” in March.
The party also ruled that its supporters were to dedicate every Thursday to “prayer, god, and fasting”, just like Nkurunziza.
In 2017, Nkurunziza asked his supporters to erect a massive stone in the central city of Gitega to symbolise “the pact the CNDD-FDD made to place God the all powerful at the head of the party.”
“The CNDD-FDD has become a real sect, and Pierre Nkurunziza is the guru,” a Burundian analyst said on condition of anonymity.
“But this is to hide his lack of political programmes and legitimise his hold on power.”
The former sports teacher at the University of Burundi, continues to practice swimming and cycling and plays up to three football matches a week, which his team often wins.
Critics say he is allowed to score several “bogus” goals during each match, with no player daring to seriously take him on.
He also participates in community development projects, in which he can be seen lugging around rocks or mixing cement.
Nkurunziza’s supporters praise him for the construction of more than 5,000 schools and 10 sports stadiums around the country.
However, critics such as exiled dissident Alexis Sinduhije see rather the “increased poverty, violations of human rights… and corruption” that have increased under his rule.
Since his 2015 re-election, “the entirety of the political, administrative, judicial and security system has fallen under the stranglehold of the president’s clan,” the FIDH said on Tuesday.
Rights groups accuse the government of waging a campaign of terror to force Burundians to vote “yes” to constitutional reforms which will increase term limits to seven years, allowing Nkurunziza to run again in 2020.