The singing president of Burundi

September 2, 2009 12:00 am

, BUJUMBURA, Sept 3 – He washes the poor’s feet, sings the gospel with passion and dances the Congolese ndombolo like no other.

For five days, Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza invited his people to join a Christian extravaganza of song, dance and prayer – starring himself – to celebrate his four years in power.

Wearing a black suit and white tee-shirt, the central African country’s leader leaps in the air, twists and twirls with a microphone in hand.

Right up until Monday’s closing show, around 15,000 people gathered every day on one of Bujumbura’s largest football pitches to give thanks to God and Nkurunziza, their country’s undisputed top two celebrities.

From the stage, the sprightly 45-year-old former rebel leader works the crowd: "I ask you to give a round of applause for our good Lord!"

Religion and physical exercise are central to the very personal style of leadership Nkurunziza has imposed since coming to power in August 2005, in the first polls since the country was torn by more than a decade of civil conflict.

Most Sundays, Nkurunziza is busy with his choir "Komeza gusenga", or "Keep on praying" in the local Kirundi language. The stage routine is well rehearsed, Nkurunziza and his fellow dancers perfectly synchronised.

Down on the pitch, the police is struggling to contain the crowd’s fervor. Sandals and loincloths fly as the president’s fellow born-agains slip into a quasi-trance.

The spectacle reaches a climax when comes the president’s favourite song: Nkurunziza rolls on his backside and starts kicking the air, together with his 20-odd dancing vocalists.

Then he suddenly rises to his feet and belches in the microphone: "God is with us! God has supported us for all those years… God has prepared so many beautiful things for us, he can work miracles through us!"

Taking no time to rest, he launches straight into his next hit, wiggling his hips to the powerful beats of a Congolese ndombolo, a kind of mix of rumba, funk and traditional rhythms.

Nkurunziza, who trained as a sports teacher and is a keen football player, became a devoted religious man when he "saw God" as a rebel fighter in the bush, following a serious injury.

The key role of protestant thought in Burundi’s former Hutu rebellion offered a fertile ground for the spread of Western evangelical churches in one of the world’s poorest nations.

Nkurunziza is widely expected to run for re-election in next year’s polls but to many of his supporters, he is a religious leader as well as a politician.

"I am here to support our president. May God protect him from evil. I love him because, like David in the Bible, he sings and dances with no inhibition for our God," says Marthe, a Burundian woman in her forties.
"The president is a great Christian, a man of good and a great blessing that God sent to Burundi," Marthe’s neighbour adds, as the musical show rages on in the background.

They don’t display the same energy as their athletic president, but all key members of the regime are present at the popular "thanksgiving party", sat on chairs under plastic tents, some of them clutching bibles.

When the president gives a sign, they all rise in one impulse and start mimicking the leader’s nifty moves the best they can, some of them clumsy with affected enthusiasm.

"Nobody forced me to come… but by ignoring the president’s invitation, I wouldn’t be doing my career any good," one senior civil servant says wrily, almost begging the local press gang not to print his picture in the newspapers.

The president’s critics describe his behaviour as "undignified" while the main opposition party Frodebu accuses him of violating the constitution’s provisions on state secularism and illegally campaigning for the 2011 polls.

Nkurunziza’s entourage scoffs at such accusations, with one top adviser arguing that they "are merely the result of jealousy because the president is a man of God and close to his people."


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