Burundi's Nkurunziza, ex-rebel, football fanatic dividing nation

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Bujumbura (Burundi) (AFP) - A former sports teacher, ex-rebel, football fanatic and born-again Christian, the president of Burundi Pierre Nkurunziza, is dividing the nation over his bid to secure a third term in office.

Violent clashes broke out Sunday following the announcement that 51-year-old Nkurunziza, from Burundi's majority Hutu ethnic group, would run in June elections -- something his opponents say is a violation of the constitution and peace deal that ended Burundi's civil war in 2006.

But those who know the former guerrilla fighter, who battled for years in the bush and believes he took the presidency with divine backing, say he is determined to hold onto his seat in the presidential palace.

"Nkurunziza has an instinct for survival, his determination to hold onto power is very high," said Innocent Muhozi, from the press rights group, Observatoire de la Presse du Burundi (OPB).

Presidential press chief Willy Nyamitwe says the president also views himself as being "close to the people" and an active, popular figure.

He describes a typical busy week: up early for an hour of swimming before arriving at his office by 6:30 am to tackle the business of state, before leaving mid-afternoon for a game of football or basketball at a private property on the shores of Lake Tanganyika.

Another day he meets with people "to engage in community work" and then spend Sunday with his family, Nyamitwe said, praising a leader who he said "built more schools than all his predecessors in 45 years of independence."

More than 5,000 schools have been built, as well as 10 sports stadiums - including the most lavish in his rural homeland of Buye, reserved for his exclusive use.

Nkurunziza never travels without his own football team and a choir, playing with local teams and holding evangelical prayers.

"He spends his time... building schools, plastering cement or mud, playing football or praying, and does not have time to deal with issues," counters leading critic Leonce Ngendakumana, head of the opposition FRODEBU party.

- Visions in the swamp -

Nkurunziza was born in 1964 into a wealthy family, the son of a member of parliament.

He was still a schoolboy when his father was killed in one of a string of ethnic massacres in 1972 that decimated the Hutu elite.

At the end of high school, he wanted to become an army officer or an economist -- dreams made impossible by restrictions on the Hutu by the then ruling Tutsi government, and he ended up a sports teacher.

He joined the Hutu rebellion in 1995, finding religion as a solace after he was badly wounded in the leg, seeing visions where he was hiding out in remote swamps that one day would be president.

"Nkurunziza indeed believes he is president by divine will... and he therefore organises his life and government around these values," said Nyamitwe.

Along with his wife Denise, they hold mass prayers where they preach to thousands, washing the feet of the poor.

Critics say that is a charade.

"Poverty has increased, violations of human rights are the norm and corruption has become widespread since Nkurunziza in power," said his fierce opponent, Alexis Sinduhije, who lives in exile.

Burundi's constitution only allows a president to be elected twice -- for a total of 10 years in power -- but Nkurunziza argues he has only been directly elected by the people once. In power since 2005, when he was selected by parliament, he was re-elected in 2010.

Party officials who have publicly opposed a third term have lost their jobs, others have been jailed or gone into hiding.

"Under a pleasant exterior lies a ruthless man," said one former close associate. "Whatever happens, Pierre Nkurunziza will be a candidate to succeed himself - and woe betide those who stand in his way."

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