Burundi riots far cry from president’s laughter in NI

President Nkurunziza with Lord Mayor Jim Rodgers meeting Belfast shoppers Margaret Phillips and Betty Smallwood in 2008. Picture Gavan Caldwell
President Nkurunziza with Lord Mayor Jim Rodgers meeting Belfast shoppers Margaret Phillips and Betty Smallwood in 2008. Picture Gavan Caldwell

Seven years ago shoppers in Belfast delighted at the sight of an African president walking through the city centre.

President Pierre Nkurunziza laughed and chatted with bypassers on Donegall Place as he was escorted by the then Lord Mayor Jim Rodgers.

Protestor stands by a burning barricade in Bujumbura, Burundi,on Thursday May 21,in protest at the president's decision to seek a third term. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Protestor stands by a burning barricade in Bujumbura, Burundi,on Thursday May 21,in protest at the president's decision to seek a third term. (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

During his four-day visit in April 2008, the leader of Burundi also toured a peaceline in west Belfast and at Stormont met the first minister, Dr Ian Paisley.

President Nkurunziza — described as a committed Christian — met the four main church leaders at Armagh.

Now that same leader is at the centre of a bitter power struggle in his home nation.

Two protestors were shot dead yesterday as pitched battles in the capital Bujumbura escalated between police and demonstrators opposed to President Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term.

President Nkurunziza with Lord Bannside at Stormont during his 2008 visit.Photo by Simon Graham/Harrison Photography

President Nkurunziza with Lord Bannside at Stormont during his 2008 visit.Photo by Simon Graham/Harrison Photography

The bid, which critics say is illegal but which Mr Nkurunziza says is not, sparked a coup attempt last week that was foiled. Mr Nkurunziza was in Tanzania for a summit at the time. He made his first public appearance in Bujumbura on Sunday. The death toll since the trouble began is at least 20.

More than 200,000 people died in the 1993-2005 civil war in Burundi, which is in the heart of Africa.

That conflict was over when, in 2008, President Nkurunziza briefed the Northern Irish church leaders on the role of the church in Burundi during and after the war.

There was talk of Bujumbura and Belfast being twinned. During his Donegall Place walkabout, Margaret Phillips and Betty Smallwood, who met the president, described him as “very nice” and added: “It’s nice to see them coming to Belfast, especially now.”

Jim Rodgers told this newspaper yesterday: “I found him to be a gentleman: he was very interested to hear what was happening here, and I was interested in what was happening in his country.

“I am sorry to hear about these latest difficulties in Burundi, which I was unaware of until the News Letter brought them to my attention.”