Football-mad president plays on while Burundi fears the return of civil war

In the poorest country in the world, President Pierre Nkurunziza is intent, say opponents, on hanging on to power – and his private stadium

It's about midday as four ragged-trousered labourers, hoes on their shoulders, climb a hill in Burundi and spot a foreigner with a camera. "You can't take pictures of that," they warn him, pointing at what looks like a castle rising out of the trees at the crest of the hill. It belongs to the president, they explain. "You'll get in trouble."

The president in question is Pierre Nkurunziza, Burundi's leader since a peace deal ended a 12-year civil war which more people would have heard of had it not coincided with the genocide 20 years ago this month in neighbouring Rwanda.

The imposing structure behind high walls with solar-powered security lights is in fact a football stadium, the 49-year-old leader's private playground. In what is by some measures the world's poorest country, the stadium is so out of keeping with its surroundings that it may as well be a spaceship in a banana plantation.

An armed policeman outside is not keen on visitors. Eventually he relents and lets us in. The facilities would not look out of place in the Championship, the second tier of English football. The groundsman points to the floodlights that "turn the night time into day" in a country where only 2% of the population has access to electricity. Covered stands shelter nearly 10,000 seats while an executive box looks down from what, thanks to its timepiece, can only be the clock end. That is where Nkurunziza likes to sit when he is not playing.

The president also looks down on the action from a giant mural painted into the clock end. The portrait shows him looking portly in a black strip kicking a ball to his young son, Jonathan, who is dressed in a Liverpool kit. The nine-year-old also

manages his own team, the groundsman boasts. But father and son do not see eye to eye on everything – the president is apparently a Chelsea fan.

Despite his age, the former guerrilla commander and reborn Christian fancies himself as a centre-forward. He is, of course, the top scorer in his own veterans' team, Haleluya FC. Made up of former national team players, the side travels this troubled country playing friendlies like a central African, footballing version of the Harlem Globetrotters. Nkurunziza's Haleluya retinue stays in a luxury hotel that he had built close to the stadium.

This spot, near the village of Vyerwa, was chosen because it's the president's birthplace. Outside the tall gates, some of Vyerwa's children, dressed in rags, wander about on the only paved road in the area, named after the first lady, Denise Nkurunziza. They are not allowed inside,

Several hours' drive away along one of Burundi's only national roads, through scores of villages where people live on a dollar a day, the capital, Bujumbura, sprawls along the shore of Lake Tanganyika. In his dilapidated backstreet office, Gabriel Rufyiri, an anti-corruption campaigner who runs the local watchdog, Olucome, has been trying to work out who pays for the president's footballing fun. He says much of the money comes from a public account for "support for good initiatives". He has brought a case before the local court, demanding that accounts be published showing how the money has been used.

Making these accusations in a country awash with guns and former rebel groups is dangerous. There is a photograph of Rufyiri's former colleague, Ernest Maniruma, on the wall. One night four years ago, when he was investigating suspected government links to a smuggling ring trafficking Malaysian weapons to Congolese militia fighters in return for conflict minerals, he was murdered and his records were stolen.

"Before, there were corrupt individuals; now, it is the ruling party," said Rufyiri. "The wealthy are crushing the rest of the people."

He says that a small cabal around the president is intent on holding on to power for fear of being investigated by a new government.

Burundi still lives in the shadow of Rwanda, where ethnic divisions between majority Hutus and minority Tutsis underpinned a genocide in which 800,000 people died in 100 days. Burundi also suffered at the time, with roughly a third of that number dying during a protracted civil war that officially ended in 2005. Unlike Rwanda, where ethnic differences have been papered over by an authoritarian government, Burundi chose to establish ethnic quotas in the army, police and parliament as a check against oppressive majority rule.

Nkurunziza, a Hutu whose party and its military wing were broadly seen to be fighting for Hutus prior to coming to power, now threatens to unravel that peace process. He wants to serve a third term after elections expected next year, even though the constitution allows for only two terms. He has begun to arrest opposition leaders, suspend their parties or appoint what one western diplomat called "ruling party quislings" to lead rival parties. The result is "the worst crisis in Burundi since the civil war", according to the Brussels-based thinktank the International Crisis Group.

Away from the cheerful extravagance of Haleluya FC, Nkurunziza has been funnelling machetes, arms and uniforms to the ruling party's vast youth wing, the Imbonerakure, thought to number as many as 100,000 men and boys. The militia reminds observers of Rwanda's notorious Interahamwe, who undertook much of the bloodiest work of the genocide.

Fears of a return to war are never far from people's thoughts in Burundi. Agathon Rwasa was the last rebel leader to lay down arms when he stopped fighting in 2009. The leader of the FNL, another Hutu outfit that sees itself as the true representative of the group's interests, sits in the hillside garden of his mansion overlooking the lake, now under virtual house arrest. His fate is typical in the struggle for power that has blurred older ethnic divisions without defusing them and created the potential for a more complex conflict.

"The government is doing all it can to create a one-party state," complains Rwasa. His supporters are routinely murdered by the Imbonerakure, and the police do nothing to protect them. He is not free to campaign. Meanwhile, the president has launched an investigation into Rwasa's activities in the war, when his FNL fighters were linked to multiple atrocities.

Rwasa dismisses the accusations with a lack of reflection that is typical of Burundi's political elite. But he also frets that the country is sleepwalking back to war: "There are more similarities than differences between what Burundi is today and what Rwanda was in 1994."

None of this will keep Nkurunziza from football practice. At 4pm each day, Bujumbura's traffic grinds to a halt to make way for his armoured motorcade as he goes to his lakeside training pitch. It is also one of the bases for Nkurunziza's other football franchise, Le Messager, a privately financed team which the man who once taught sports at the nearby university before the war called "the realisation of his dream".

It is financed, the president claims, by donations from friends of Burundi and members of the public. After nearly four seasons playing in the national leagues, Le Messager has made it to the first division, where it is in sixth place. The team enjoys strong support from ruling party members but, in spite of that and its advantage in money and facilities – the Prince Rwagasore stadium, where Burundi's national team play, is a wreck in comparison – it has failed to dominate.

Désiré Hatungimana, the head of Burundi's sports journalists' union, has his own theory as to why: "Burundi's referees' association might be the last institution left with any integrity. We even have a referee going to the World Cup. He's a national prosecutor."


Daniel Howden

The GuardianTramp

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