Nkurunziza at an independence day celebration in 2015. Photo: Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

Burundi's government says President Pierre Nkurunziza, 55, has died of a heart attack — though his death follows reports that he and his wife may have contracted COVID-19.

Why it matters: Burundi has reported few cases of coronavirus and done little to mitigate the spread. It expelled World Health Organization officials last month, accusing them of "interference," and went ahead with elections on May 20 that were widely viewed as rigged but saw Nkurunziza's chosen successor declared the winner.

Where things stand: The government says Nkurunziza was hospitalized on Saturday after feeling unwell, and that he went into cardiac arrest on Monday.

  • But observers noted that Nkurunziza's wife had reportedly been taken to Kenya days earlier for medical treatment, likely for coronavirus.

Between the lines: Nkurunziza would be the first sitting world leader to die of coronavirus, if that was determined to be the cause.

The big picture: Nkurunziza was due to step down as president in August and be named “supreme guide to patriotism," per the Economist.

  • Burundi, a country of 11 million which borders Rwanda, Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo, has seen significant democratic backsliding on Nkurunziza's watch, according to Freedom House.
  • He defied constitutional term limits in seeking a third term in 2015, but surprised some by stepping aside this time around.
  • Like in Tanzania, the government has refused to implement many restrictions, and a government spokesman said the country would be protected by God. The ruling party held large rallies ahead of the elections.

What to watch: "The big question here is whether [Nkurunziza] died from Covid-19 (and whether authorities will admit it if he did)," says Simon Allison, Africa editor for the Mail and Guardian.

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