Pierre Nkurunziza, Burundi’s strongman president, may have become the world’s first leader to die of Covid-19, according to opposition sources.
The Burundian government, which insisted for months that its country had been spared from the coronavirus pandemic because of its faith in God, announced that Mr Nkurunziza had died of a heart attack. He was 55.
The government announced “with great sadness the unexpected death of His Excellency Pierre Nkurunziza, President of the Republic of Burundi, at the Karusi Fiftieth Anniversary Hospital following a cardiac arrest on June 8, 2020,” the government said on its official Twitter account on Tuesday.
However, opposition sources and journalists living in exile claimed that Mr Nkurunziza had been undergoing treatment for Covid-19 at a hospital in Karuzi in the centre of the country after he fell ill over the weekend.
His widow Denise had been admitted to a private hospital in the Kenyan capital Nairobi late last month after suffering similar symptoms, according to Kenyan officials.
She was flown into Nairobi by Kenyan flying doctors on an air ambulance equipped with a portable isolation chamber.
An opposition source said that one of the country’s few ventilators had been flown by helicopter to Karuzi in a desperate bid to save the president’s life.
“It arrived too late,” he said. “He deteriorated very quickly.”
An entire block of the hospital was reportedly evacuated, and the late president was placed under the personal care of Burundi’s health minister, Thadée Ndikumana.
The source said Mr Nkurunziza died on Monday afternoon, although his death – as is often the case with sitting presidents in Africa – was kept quiet for more than 24 hours.
Burundi officially only has 83 confirmed cases of Covid-19 and one death. The low infection rate, although always quietly questioned by Burundi’s cowed opposition, was hailed as an example of divine favour.
“Burundi is an exception because it is a country that has put God first,” Mr Nkurunziza’s spokesman said in late March.
Mr Nkurunziza had ruled the central African state since 2005. His government attracted international and domestic criticism for pressing ahead with an election last month, amid concerns that it could cause the virus to spread.
The government ignored criticism from the World Health Organisation staff and expelled its top official in the country as well as his coronavirus team.
Mr Nkurunziza was due to step down from power in August but retain the title of “Supreme Guide of Patriotism,” a position which would see him retain significant influence over defence and national security issues.
Evariste Ndayishimiye, the ruling party’s candidate in last month’s election, won 68% of the vote and was set to take over from Mr Nkurunziza.