Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza is an evangelical who believes he was chosen by God to rule the east African nation.
While many believed the 54-year-old former rebel was planning to cling to power as long as possible — after already pushing through a third term — he announced Thursday he would step down in 2020.
A constitutional reform passed in a referendum last month extended term limits, in a move that could allow Nkurunziza to stay in office until 2034.
“The new constitution has not been tailored for Pierre Nkurunziza, as our enemies claim,” the president said, speaking in the third person.
“As far as I am concerned, I am preparing to support, with all my strength, the new president who we are going to elect in 2020.”
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.”
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 referendum.
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.
In 2015, he argued this meant he had only been directly elected once, but promised that this would be his last term.
On Thursday, he declared, “I will not go back on my word. Our mandate ends in 2020.”
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 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.
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.