Deep in Burundi’s countryside, a rutted dirt road turns to smooth tarmac for a few hundred metres, leading to a smart 8,000-seat sports stadium that emerges incongruously out of the bush right next to the president’s villa. Home to a soccer academy sponsored by Pierre Nkurunziza, the facility is part of the rebel-turned-president’s stated mission to bind together a grindingly poor nation shattered by an ethnically fuelled civil war a decade ago.
But protesters on the streets of the capital say the 51-year-old’s bid for a third five-year term in office is tearing apart the nation at the heart of Africa, violating the constitution and a 2005 peace deal. “Sports activities are being used to foster peace and unity in Burundi,” Nkurunziza, a soccer fanatic and striker for his team Haleluya FC, said in a speech last year.
Opponents say the stadium is evidence of a populism that ignores real problems blighting a country where many roads become impassable in rain and just 3 percent of people have mains power. Annual per capita income is $260, less than a quarter of the average across the world’s poorest continent.
“It is a mad project, building a smart stadium in a remote area while Burundi doesn’t even have generators to supply electricity to the population,” said Francois Bizimana, an opposition politician and former member of the regional East African Legislative Assembly.
How the crisis plays out may hinge on whether Nkurunziza bows to protests in the capital, Bujumbura, or focuses on his rural power base, where he tours villages playing football or dons rubber boots to work in the fields. On Wednesday, he vowed to press on, conceding only that if elected his next term would be his last.
The protests against him, in which activists say at least 14 people have died, including a man burned alive on Thursday, are stoking tension in a region with a history of ethnic conflict and where other presidents also soon face term limits. “He is a populist,” said a Western diplomat, noting that Nkurunziza has built support in rural areas that were often neglected by his political opponents. “We are not even contesting the fact he might win an election. It is about the … destruction of institutions.”
The institution at stake is the 2005 Arusha peace deal that was hammered out between rivals including Nkurunziza, who attended the talks for CNDD-FDD, the main rebel force of the ethnic Hutu majority that battled the then Tutsi-led army.
COUNTRYSIDE POWER BASE
The deal is still seen by many Burundians, notably the Tutsi minority, as a guarantor of security. It outlines how power is to be shared between ethnic groups and like the constitution sets a two-term limit for any president.
Burundi’s constitutional court ruled this week that Nkurunziza’s first term did not count because he was picked by parliament rather than elected. Opponents say the court is biased and have promised more of the protests seen almost daily since April 26. “Those guys from the opposition and civil society, they just want to get a government of transition,” said Elisha Bizimana, 40, speaking in Nkurunziza’s home village of Buye. “They don’t care what rural people think.”
Bizimana, who fought in the bush with Nkurunziza from 2002 and now leads the president’s choir, described him as someone at ease with ordinary people, who could tell a good joke and was ready to roll up his sleeves to work in the fields. In a nearby valley Nkurunziza had helped plant avocado trees, part of a national project to provide nutrition to the poor, Bizimana said, adding: “When he comes home … he takes his bike, he passes by everywhere. He greets everyone he meets.”
The stadium, which Nkurunziza’s aides say was financed by private investors, sits atop a hill in Buye on land donated by local families. Opposite is Nkurunziza’s country retreat, a villa with blue-tinted glass behind a high wall which contrasts with the scruffy shacks lining many rural roads.
Nkurunziza was a university sports lecturer in Bujumbura when, in 1995, two years after war erupted, he says he narrowly escaped being killed in a massacre of Hutu students.
He joined the rebels, rising swiftly through the ranks as he won a reputation for uniting rival Hutu groups. The rebels dubbed him “muhuza” in the Kirundi language, meaning “someone who brings people together”.
With a Hutu father, a politician who was killed in 1972 during a previous bout of ethnic killings, and a Tutsi mother, he had the credentials to unite a nation as president. “We thought he was an ideal guy. He was a mixture of Tutsi and Hutu,” said a senior African military officer who served with a U.N. force in Burundi and used to play soccer with Nkurunziza. “I never expected him to be clinging to power.”