A controversial referendum in Burundi on Thursday could see President Pierre Nkurunziza retain power for another 16 years. The vote is the latest chapter in a crisis that has left more than 1,000 dead and caused hundreds of thousands to flee.
With opponents cowed, beaten, killed or now living in exile, there seems little doubt the constitutional amendments at issue will pass, enabling the 54-year-old, who took power in 2005, to remain in charge until 2034.
The campaign period – like the preceding three years of unrest triggered by Nkurunziza’s controversial but ultimately successful run for a third term – has been marked by intimidation and abuse, say human rights groups.
Opposition parties were allowed to rally for the first time since the start of the political crisis in 2015, drawing massive crowds during their “no” campaigns.
But critics say this was merely to provide a veneer of inclusivity.
“People seen as opposed to the referendum have been killed, kidnapped, beaten up, illegally arrested and held by state agents,” Paris-based International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH) said on Tuesday.
“If the ‘yes’ side wins, it will mean the country plunging into another dictatorship… Because it would be an extraordinary executive power that risks silencing all the other institutions of the republic,” Agathon Rwasa, the main opposition leader still based in the country, told FRANCE 24 by phone.
The changes will be adopted if more than 50 percent of ballots cast are in favour. Some 4.8 million people, or a little under half the population, have signed up to vote, according to the Independent National Electoral Commission, which is organising the referendum under tightly controlled conditions.
A presidential decree ruled earlier this month that anyone advising voters to boycott the vote risks up to three years in jail.
“This campaign was very unfair and was used as an additional repressive tool, adding to the serious crimes that the authorities had been perpetrating for the last three years,” the FIDH said in a statement on Tuesday.
“Opponents suffered acts of reprisal for their participation in the ‘no’ campaign, and dozens of them have been arrested, detained and beaten since mid-April,” it added.
Impoverished Burundi has been volatile since the 1990s, riven particularly by ethnic discord in the military as Hutu and Tutsi officers jockey for power.
The tiny central African nation has struggled to recover from a brutal and destructive civil war from 1993-2006 that left more than 300,000 people dead.
A peace deal, signed in the Tanzanian city of Arusha in 2000, paved the way for an end to the fighting and included a provision that no leader could serve more than two five-year terms.
Nkurunziza circumvented that clause by running for a third term in 2015, a move critics said was unconstitutional. A crackdown on political opponents prompted a crisis that saw 1,200 people killed and 400,000 flee their homes.
Nkurunziza is the son of a Hutu father and a Tutsi mother. A born-again Christian and former rebel leader who won some of his support with public displays of faith, he was re-elected unopposed in 2010 after the opposition boycotted the vote.
Protests erupted in April 2015 after Nkurunziza argued that because lawmakers – and not the general population – had voted him in for his first term he was eligible for a third.
Amid the protests, a group of senior armed forces officers attempted a coup. While peace talks between the government and the opposition stalled, Nkurunziza tightened his grip on the army, allegedly by purging officers deemed disloyal, according to the FIDH and local civic groups.
A sustained campaign against the press has also forced most independent journalists to leave the country.
Nkurunziza’s violent crackdown on his opponents is being investigated by the International Criminal Court for possible crimes against humanity.
Rewriting the constitution
Nkurunziza who believes he has a God-given right to rule and was recently declared a “visionary” by his own CNDD-FDD party now wants to rewrite the constitution and extend term lengths to seven years. This would allow him to start again from scratch after elections in 2020.
Other proposed reforms weaken constitutional constraints on the feared national intelligence agency and allow for the revision of ethnic quotas, seen as crucial to peace after the war.
The new constitution also gets rid of one of the two vice president posts and shifts some powers from the government to the president.
‘Worried for the future’
Burundi’s exiled opposition, which has united in an alliance called the National Council for the Respect of the Arusha Accord, has called for a boycott of the referendum, which it describes as the “death knell” of the Arusha peace agreement.
Burundian exiles in Paris on Tuesday demanded the international community take stronger action against Bujumbura.
Among them was Pierre Claver Mbonimpa, who suffered a gunshot wound to the face in a 2015 assassination attempt in the capital before fleeing to Belgium. He suggests an embargo is needed. “What we want is for the international community to take action, for example with severe sanctions so that those in power in Burundi are unable to keep functioning,” he told FRANCE 24.
“There have to be sanctions to force Pierre Nkurunziza to negotiate,” said Elyse Ngabire, a former journalist who took refuge in France in 2015 after receiving threats. “I am worried for the future. The situation is heading towards worse violence.”
The government has accused dissidents, and neighbouring countries, of planning to undermine the referendum and has deployed military units to areas bordering Rwanda to the north and Congo to the west.
Earlier this month Burundi’s press regulator suspended broadcasts by the BBC and Voice of America and warned other radio stations, including FRANCE 24 sister station Radio France Internationale, against spreading “tendentious and misleading” information.
(FRANCE 24 with AFP and AP)