BUJUMBURA — Burundi held an extraordinary cabinet meeting on Thursday to discuss a way forward after the sudden death of long-serving ruler Pierre Nkurunziza left many anxious over the future of the troubled country.
Nkurunziza, who died on Monday aged 55, had been due to step down in August after his surprise decision not to run in an election last month won by the ruling party's handpicked successor.
But his death has raised uncertainty and fears of a power struggle in a country whose recent history has been marked by violent political upheaval, a refugee exodus and civil war.
The government called a ministerial meeting to discuss "the management of the situation following the unexpected death" of Nkurunziza, who according to the government died of a heart attack after feeling unwell for two days.
The meeting wrapped up in the early afternoon, and the government is expected to give an official statement on its outcome later in the day.
"The two vice presidents and cabinet ministers have already approached the constitutional court to declare the presidency vacant," a presidential advisor said on condition of anonymity.
Under the constitution, the speaker of the National Assembly, Pascal Nyabenda, should take over in the event of the president dying.
However the country finds itself in an unusual situation, as a newly-elected president, Evariste Ndayishimiye, is waiting to be sworn in in August.
"The government seemed to be leaning towards a swift swearing-in of the president-elect, but things are changing because after intense discussions they may finally opt for the strict respect of the constitution with an interim led by the speaker," the presidential advisor said.
This was confirmed by another high-ranking party member.
The path forward will be ultimately be decided by a "crisis committee" answering to the president's office, a ministerial source said on condition of anonymity.
This group comprises powerful generals like Nkurunziza, who emerged from the ethnic Hutu rebellion during Burundi's long civil war and ruled for 15 often tumultuous years.
"In reality, it is not the council of ministers that will decide what will happen... everything has been decided within the crisis committee that sits with the presidency," the source said.
Nkurunziza, an evangelical who believed he was chosen by God to rule the East African nation, fostered a personality cult around his leadership.
The ruling party declared him a "visionary" and "supreme guide for patriotism", and some officials likened his death to a catastrophe.
But he did not wield power alone, and analysts say his death could provoke a tussle for power in the upper echelons of government.
Nkurunziza had wanted Nyabenda to succeed him, but the generals opted for Ndayishimiye who won the May 20 election.
While also a general, Ndayishimiye is not a regime hardliner and Nkurunziza had been expected to continue to play a significant role in the background.
His 2015 run for a third term in office sparked protests and a failed coup, with violence leaving at least 1,200 people dead while some 400,000 fled the country.
A climate of fear marked by a crackdown on the opposition and media settled over Burundi in the years after.
Rumours swirled on social media about his death, with some suspecting he had been infected by coronavirus.
His wife, first lady Denise Bucumi, who was recovering from the coronavirus in a Nairobi hospital, flew back to Bujumbura late on Tuesday. — VNS