Catholic bishops have urged citizens of the tiny majority Catholic East African nation of Burundi to consolidate peace and unity, as they mourn their leader who died suddenly on June 8.
President Pierre Nkurunziza, 55, had been admitted at the Karusi Fiftieth Anniversary Hospital, the government announced on Tuesday, when he died of a heart attack. He has been admitted there two days earlier with undeclared sickness. Before falling sick, the leader had attended a volleyball match in the capital, Bujumbura.
“We ask our Burundian brothers and sisters to combine their efforts… to honour his memory by safeguarding the heritage he leaves us….and to consolidate unity and peace,” said Bishop Joachim Ntahondereye of Muyinga in a statement of the Conference of Catholic Bishops of Burundi.
Ntahondereye, also the Bishops’ Conference president, said the bishops expressed their closeness to the suffering and sadness of Burundians due to the unexpected death.
“We express our sincere condolences to all, in particular, his family and to the government he led. We know there is no one else who can comfort them appropriately, except the Lord God,” said the Bishop. “We thank the late president for the many goods he has accomplished for Burundi throughout his work as President of this Republic.”
His death has, however, ignited speculations that he may have died of coronavirus related complications after his country denied the existence of the disease. His wife, Denise, was in May airlifted to Nairobi with Covid-19 related complications.
Days before Nkurunziza’s death, Evariste Ndayishimiye, a former army general had been elected his successor, in Presidential polls that catholic bishops said had massive irregularities. Although he was to hand over power in August, Nkurunziza was to remain as the country’s Supreme Leader, following a May parliamentary vote.
Born in 1964, Nkurunziza came to power in 2005 and for 15 years, he had ruled the country with an iron fist, while juggling fanatical love for football and the bible.
But his final five years had been wracked by turmoil. Catholic bishops had rejected his plan to run for a third term in 2015 as unconstitutional and warned of violence. More than 100 people died in ensuing violent protests that saw security target Catholic priests in brutal repression. Thousands were forced to flee the country.