Burundi’s flamboyant President Nkurunziza regularly takes to the soccer field in order to heal his war-torn country.
His appearances draw big crowds and he uses the opportunity to push his message of peace and reconciliation.
Have Your Say; Are President's Nkurunziza's methods effective in Africa?
Nkurunziza waged a guerrilla war against Burundi’s Tutsi soldiers until four years ago when he was elected President.
Ginny Stein travels to Burundi to meet him and finds that – apart from football – the President is also a fitness fanatic who enjoys cycling – albeit followed by a convoy of vehicles carrying his security guards.
He also rolls up his sleeves and joins as many as five million Burundians in a weekly working bee to lay bricks and mortar to replace infrastructure ruined during the war.
How long has it been since we heard a good news story out of Africa? Well, how about this one, from Burundi from the irrepressible Ginny Stein.
REPORTER: Ginny Stein
In the remote mountain commune of Marangara, today has been set aside for celebration. The unthinkable is happening. Burundi's head of state is on his way to visit. It's not exactly the form of transport you'd expect from a head of state. He's followed by a convoy of armed guards. This former sports lecturer knows how to combine work with keeping fit and staying in touch with the people. En route he stops at this community project.
MAN, (Translation): We are very excited to see the President, long may he live, for a hundred years in his country.
PIERRE NKURUNZIZA, PRESIDENT OF BURUNDI: This belongs to the association, it is backed by the people who organise. So we buy these trees to plant them throughout the country. They are fruit trees.
VILLAGERS, (Translation): We are very happy, we wish him all the best, he should visit us more often, especially this area.
On arrival at Marangara, President Pierre Nkurunziza is given a welcome fit for royalty. For many people here, conflict is all they've known. The prospect of hearing their president speak about peace has brought people down from the mountains.
WOMAN, (Translation): Personally, I would ask for many things… mainly peace, peace is our main concern, without peace we can not be happy. With peace, you can solve many problems.
Burundi has its problems but its future is linked with neighbours who've suffered even more bloodshed – Rwanda, where the assassination of Burundi's Hutu president led to Hutu death squads exterminating almost a million people, and the Democratic Republic of Congo, where millions have died in conflicts that still continue.
Pierre Nkurunziza is a former rebel soldier. He was elected president in 2005 under a deal to end years of conflict between the Tutsi-dominated army and Hutu rebels.
PRESIDENT PIERRE NKURUNZIZA, (Translation): Not a week goes by without us visiting the people, when we are not abroad. When we come to visit it is an opportunity to discuss and share things. We are here because we love you and hold you in our hearts.
He's the first head of state ever to set foot in this part of the country. For years the villages around Marangara were at the heart of an ethnic war which began when Tutsi army officers murdered the country's first Hutu president in 1993.
PRESIDENT PIERRE NKURUNZIZA, (Translation): Peace be with us, with all of us. Peace be with you.
CROWD, (Translation): With all of us.
In the decade that followed, 300,000 people were killed as the country cracked apart. But now the last of Burundi's rebel groups has laid down its weapons and a cease-fire agreement seems to be holding.
PRESIDENT PIERRE NKURUNZIZA, (Translation): From my part I would like to assure you, we will do whatever it takes to make sure the agreement is implemented as soon as possible. Let’s continue..may you enjoy prosperity..may you enjoy unity..may you have work and prosperity in our country, Burundi.
Burundi is being touted as a leading example of peacemaking in a region well versed in conflict.
PRESIDENT PIERRE NKURUNZIZA: We have seen that democracy is possible in our country and now we have elected institutions and we have also formed a new army and police. There is peace. That's why we put down our guns.
The President's visit is giving special hope to those who can remember what it was like to live in peace.
WOMAN, (Translation): To me, peace is when you are able to work, find food, sleep well at night, send the kids to school, when everyone works and goes home in safety without having to worry that your neighbour will harm you. When you can go to sleep at night and next day greet your neighbour, you feel at ease.
But peace for some has come at a price. Suzanne Ntirandekura is a Tutsi, although she prefers not to describe herself that way.
SUZANNE NTIRANDEKURA, (Translation): I consider myself a human being, you know you’re Tutsi or Hutu, there’s no point always thinking about it. I know I am a human being like everyone else. That’s how I see it.
But when the nation descended into anarchy she became one of the hunted. Suzanne survived the murderous frenzy but many in her family were killed, including her cousin.
SUZANNE NTIRANDEKURA, (Translation): They took her and tied her up, she was pregnant. When they came to the river they said, ‘Let’s cut her open to see what a Tutsi baby looks like in the womb.’ Then they threw her, the foetus still connected to her, into the river along with her child.
She was resettled here in Marangara after years of running from war.
SUZANNE NTIRANDEKURA, (Translation): Only the people of Burundi can bring peace, if we disrupt the peace, we are to blame. We should all work together to restore and maintain peace.
Among her new neighbours are former child soldiers trying to restart their own lives. Jean Claude was given a gun when he was 11. He wants to put his past behind him.
JEAN CLAUDE, (Translation): I can only talk about what I can see here, if we have peace we can achieve everything.
Today Burundi's President is leading by example. An avid football player, he's known throughout the region for his football skills.
PRESIDENT PIERRE NKURUNZIZA: You know that before I become President I was playing in the league in Bujumbura and after I became also a coach. Those players who are together in our team, they are my former players.
Nowadays whenever he travels outside of the capital, Bujumbura, so too does his team – the Haleluya Football Club – the team's name a declaration of the President's own Christian faith. His opponents, this mountain-top village's local team, know they are in for a tough match against seasoned opponents.
COACH, (Translation): I think the President’s team is stronger than ours because they’ve played and won many games. But we’ll play and show them we are not children. We talked to our players and advised them to go easy on the President, but we shouldn’t be too soft on him. We shouldn’t hold back on attacking but we shouldn’t hurt him.
The only advice given by this coach to his players before the game is to be nice. This may be a friendly match, but both sides are out to win.
COACH 2, (Translation): I would advise them to keep calm during the game because their adversaries are very young. The Haleluya are a bit older, so if they play like their adversaries…. There! Their second goal!
They’re playing tough, you should do the same, push them back harder, when you reach the penalty area, look for the President, whenever he is unmarked, pass the ball. Pass the ball to him, is t hat okay?
Burundi's 'Football President', as he's known throughout the region, firmly believes that football can unite his nation, that tribal divisions are erased when it comes to the great game.
PRESIDENT PIERRE NKURUNZIZA: Football is very important. It is very popular in Burundi and if you go in every area and you see the people playing soccer. Soccer in Burundi is very popular and when you come here you see all the people, even the old man, old women, come to watch the match. It is very important to unite the people.
Burundi has come a long way in a short time. It was only four years ago that Pierre Nkurunziza came in from the bush. A one-time physical education lecturer, he'd taken up arms after Burundi's Tutsi-dominated army attacked the campus where he was teaching, killing 200 students.
PRESIDENT PIERRE NKURUNZIZA, (Translation): We can publicly announce that without doubt we have ended the war. And the energy we were using to fight and the energy we were using to flee, will now be used to mend the hearts of the people of Burundi and to develop our country.
After almost a decade in the bush, laying down his weapons came easily.
PRESIDENT PIERRE NKURUNZIZA: No, it was not a very difficult decision because all the combatants were tired, even the army was tired, and it was also a good time to sit down together to see how we can develop our country and rebuild the country. You can say that to put down our guns, it was, it come from the situation, because all the Burundian people were tired.
Peace deals returned most of the Hutu rebel groups to the government fold earlier this decade, except for one, the National Liberation Forces, known as FNL. It's headed by this man – General Agathon Rwasa. Now, after almost two decades in exile and fighting in the bush, he too has come home.
REPORTER: I just want to ask you what it's like coming back here and seeing your men. Is it a good feeling coming here?
GENERAL AGATHON RWASA, LEADER, NATIONAL LIBERATION FORCES: Yes, indeed, it's a good feeling because we have to cope every day. Once they are here, if they are not visited they may feel forsaken, but in our views we are not to forsake them and they are not forsake us.
Today General Rwasa is meeting his troops in a cantonment in the mountains outside of the capital. The only armed soldiers here belong to the African Union, which is monitoring the peace process.
GENERAL AGATHON RWASA, (Translation): Even in normal life it is important to be organised, it is very important. But as I have said, you must understand wherever you are, in ordinary civilian life or in the security forces, in school or anywhere else, you must be a beacon of light for other Burundians so we can come out of the darkness that dragged the country backwards, is that clear friends?
Like President Nkurunziza, this former guerilla fighter wants to exchange his military fatigues for a life in politics. And he wants to contest the next election. But there’s a problem. His proposed political party is called the Party for the Liberation of Hutus, creating much angst amongst the Tutsis. General Rwasa argues keeping the party's name is about its identity, not about tribal divisions.
GENERAL AGATHON RWASA: The people need peace. The people are accepting us. Why should the Government refuse us, pretending that the people is against us, through the constitution? The constitution was not elaborated by the people. It was just elaborated by a tiny group of people who were aiming to safeguard their interests.
Former president Domitien Ndayizeye, whose forces battled General Rwasa's rebels, believes democracy needs to be given a chance, including General Rwasa and his party, the FNL.
DOMITIEN NDAYIZEYE, PRESIDENT OF BURUNDI 2003-2005: We have agreed that we all need peace in Burundi and we have decided that FNL must be involved in the peace process in Burundi. It is a very good thing that the current President is encouraging Burundians to involve the peace and encouraging FNL to come in.
He also believes the main threat to peace in one of the poorest countries in the world is poverty.
DOMITIEN NDAYIZEYE: If we follow very carefully only the peace process and we forget the problem of development, we come in again in conflict, and the main preoccupation of Burundians today – and I think I'm not wrong – is the problem of poverty.
And that the international community must abide by promises made to Burundi, which are yet to be fulfilled.
DOMITIEN NDAYIZEYE: Maybe they are interested by the other problems occurring in other countries because maybe Burundi is too small.
For now, Burundi is helping itself. It's first light, and the people of Burundi are waking up early for a united effort to rebuild the nation. Every Saturday, except on the rare occasion they are given a day off, the nation is mobilised, including the President. Today, this village is taking the first steps to build its own school and the nation's self-described born-again Christian President is leading the way. The government has promised universal health care and compulsory free primary education but schools and health clinics are in short supply. In a nation strapped for cash, everyone is called on to help. Just as Burundi's people are learning to live in peace, so too are the nation's leaders.
REPORTER: And you are getting your hands dirty today?
PRESIDENT PIERRE NKURUNZIZA: Yes, of course, of course. Through the whole country, we mobilise around 4 million people, 4 million people every Saturday. The whole country now is what we call community works.
Burundi, we come from a civil war and also Burundi is among the five first countries which are poor in the world. So the poverty is another obstacle to develop our country but with peace there is hope we can rebuild our country and especially we can see how we can develop our potential, especially tourism and mining, there is a hope.
Burundi's peace is fragile but this time there's optimism it might hold.
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