Burundi’s newly elected president Evariste Ndayishimiye was to be sworn in on Thursday, after the sudden death of his predecessor who left him an isolated nation in political and economic turmoil.
Ndayishimiye was elected in May in a vote disputed by the opposition, and was meant to take office in August, however the inauguration was sped up after his predecessor Pierre Nkurunziza’s shock death.
In the administrative capital Gitega, tree trunks were painted white and streets had been swept, with a heavy presence of security forces around the city.
Guests began pouring into the stadium from early in the morning, wearing an identical multicoloured outfit given to them by the ruling party and sitting according to their provinces.
Diplomats, members of the military, police and courts took their seats in the upper platform of the stadium.
Democratic Republic of Congo President Felix Tshisekedi was expected to be the only head of state attending the inauguration — taking place in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic — however had to cancel last minute, a presidential spokesman told AFP on condition of anonymity.
All attendees had to wash their hands before entering, but despite repeated requests to maintain a distance of at least 70cm (27.5 inches) between them, guests were packed tightly together and few if any were seen wearing masks.
Nkurunziza, who ruled the East Africa nation for 15 often tumultuous years, was said by the government to have died of a heart attack last week.
However the 55-year-old took ill less than two weeks after his wife had been flown to a Nairobi hospital for treatment for coronavirus, according to a medical document seen by AFP, and speculation is rife he may have caught the virus.
A medical source told AFP he had suffered “respiratory distress” before dying.
Compared to its neighbours which imposed lockdowns and curfews — with the exception of equally sceptical Tanzania — Burundi has taken few measures to combat the virus.
The country last month expelled a team of World Health Organization experts who were supporting the country’s response to the epidemic.
‘A dark and sad legacy’
Nkurunziza, a devout evangelical who believed he was chosen by God to lead Burundi, leaves a “dark and sad legacy”, Carina Tertsakian of the Burundi Human Rights Initiative told AFP.
His 2015 run for a third term in office sparked protests and a failed coup, with violence leaving at least 1,200 dead while some 400,000 fled the country.
United Nations human rights investigators have said the period since 2015 has been marked by likely crimes against humanity committed by state forces, citing extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests, disappearances, torture and sexual violence.
Ndayishimiye, 52, a former army general and Hutu rebel like his predecessor, had been handpicked by the powerful ruling CNDD-FDD party to run in a May 20 presidential election.
He won the vote with 68.7 percent, and an opposition bid to have the results overturned due to alleged fraud was rejected just days before Nkurunziza’s death.
Ndayishimiye is reputed to be more tolerant and open than his predecessor and is not a regime hardliner.
Observers say the death of Nkurunziza — who was expected to continue to play a significant role — might give him more independence.
However he will still have to please the powerful group of generals at the core of the ruling party, who anointed him to succeed Nkurunziza.
After the news of Nkurunziza’s death Ndayishimiye vowed to “continue his high-quality work that he has done for our country”.
The change in president also opens up the possibility of warmer ties with foreign donors, who cut Burundi off after the 2015 crisis.
A source in the French presidency said the country would work with its European partners and “extend a hand to the new Burundian president”.
“For the first time we will have a leader who is not just forging ahead regardless of the consequences, wrapped up in divine faith,” the source said.
The government has yet to announce a date for Nkurunziza’s funeral.