June 10, 2020 / 1:05 PM / a month ago

Burundi begins official mourning for President Nkurunziza

NAIROBI (Reuters) - Burundi began an official period of mourning for President Pierre Nkurunziza on Wednesday, a day after the announcement of his death from a heart attack aged 55 shocked the impoverished East African nation he had ruled with an iron grip.

The Burundian national flag flies at half mast outside the State House building following the death of Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza, in Bujumbura, Burundi June 10, 2020. REUTERS/Evrard Ngendakumana

Wearing face masks and gloves to prevent the spread of the new coronavirus, senior government officials, foreign ambassadors and religious leaders lined up to sign a condolence book opened in his memory at the presidential palace.

Nkurunziza’s wife, Denise Bucumi, appeared to be absent. Air ambulance service AMREF told Reuters they had flown her to Nairobi on May 21 for medical treatment, but declined to confirm widespread reports in Kenyan media that this was for treatment for COVID-19, the lung disease caused by the new coronavirus.

Calls seeking comment on Bucumi’s health to Willy Nyamitwe, Nkurunziza’s close ally and adviser, went unanswered.

There was little public show of mourning on the streets.

“He leaves behind a country whose economy is in a very bad shape,” said a hospital employee who asked not to be identified for fear of reprisals.

Burundi’s economy is mired in poverty and cut off by international donors after the United Nations documented the widespread rape, torture and murder of political opponents by ruling party activists and state security forces.

It remains unclear whether the powerful cabal of army generals and security chiefs who propped up Nkurunziza during his 15-year rule remain united over the succession.

Nkurunziza had been due to stand down in August, making way for retired general Evariste Ndayishimiye, who won an election last month that the opposition said was marred by violence and rigging. The constitutional court last week rejected the rigging charges.

Pascal Nyabenda, a civilian who heads the national assembly, is now meant to take over until Ndayishimiye, his former rival, starts his seven-year term at the end of August.

Authorities have not commented on the succession or Nkurunziza’s burial date.

Burundi expelled the representative of the World Health Organization (WHO) last month amid criticism of the government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. It has carried out very few tests and held large rallies during the election period.

Reporting by Nairobi Newsroom; Editing by Gareth Jones

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