Preparing for a controversial referendum, the central African country of Burundi is on edge.
The Thursday referendum would not only extend the rule of President Pierre Nkurunziza until 2034, but it would also roll back some key aspects of the Arusha Agreement, which paved the way for ending the country’s long and bloody civil war in 2005. The fear is that the referendum could spark more violence in the country.
Yolande Bouka, a research fellow at the University of Denver who has studied Burundi’s current political crisis in detail, says the proposed constitutional amendment makes it easier for the ruling party “to get its way.” It gives the president broader powers to control the legislative agenda, for example, and it also makes it easier for the president to minimize the influence of other political parties and ethnic minorities.
“The very basis on which the Arusha Agreement was designed, which was to make the political system more inclusive to avoid the type of violence Burundi experienced since the 60s and the 70s all the way to civil war in the 1990s, all of that is undermined with the new constitution,” she said.
In some ways, Burundi is already seeing some of the consequences of the consolidation of power in the country.
Human rights groups have charged that the lead-up to this referendum has been marked by intimidation, beatings and even killings. In a report released last month, Human Rights Watch detailed more than a dozen cases of intimidation, many at the hands of the Imbonerakure, the ruling party’s youth league.
One man, reports Human Rights Watch, was heading home when he was stopped at a roadblock by members of the Imbonerakure. He could not prove that he had registered to vote, so the young men beat him yelling that not registering to vote meant he was “against the referendum.
Reached by telephone, Ndayizeye Sylvestre, the chairman of the Imbonerakure, said he could not speak to the media about the referendum or about the allegations against the group.
The government, however, has vehemently denied any repression calling the reports propaganda. Last month, the government jailed a supporter who called for the drowning of government opponents. And the ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy - Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), issued a statement saying they were “surprised” by the comments. They added: “The party urges all its members to exercise political tolerance and asks for justice in this case.”
The most recent bout of violence in Burundi started in 2015. President Nkurinziza, who came into power as the war ended in 2005, announced he would seek a third term. Critics called it illegal, because the constitution based on the 2000 Arusha Agreement, limited a president to two terms. But, ultimately, Nkurunziza prevailed in court arguing that in 2005, he was elected by parliament and not the people, so he was entitled to a third term.
His party splintered and it all came to a head when one of his former allies attempted a coup. Nkurinziza survived but the country has been in a slow-burn conflict since.
The now-banned human rights group ITEKA League found that between April 2015 and May 2018, 1,710 people were murdered, 558 were tortured and more than 8,000 were arrested. Over that same period, more than 400,000 Burundians fled the conflict into neighboring countries.
A commission created by United Nations Human Rights Council in 2016 has consistently found that crimes against humanity have likely been committed in Burundi and that in a country with a history of tribal-based violence, government leaders have used ethnic attacks to “help create a dangerous climate of hate [that] could rekindle ethnic tensions.”
Stephanie Mbanzendore, who runs Burundian Women for Peace and Development, an organization that focuses on reconciliation, says after Nkurunziza took power in 2005, she was hopeful. She had left Burundi in 1994, but the government was open and inclusive she said.
After 2015, she says things changed.
“Again, this division came back. Now we are talking again more and more about ethnic group,” she said. “And I hope that we come back to when we were talking about inclusivity… when you felt this was my country, not because you are this or that but because you are a Burundian.”
Bouka sees this referendum as a naked power grab by Nkurunziza and she says it goes beyond tribal conflicts between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis.
“Some of these measures are not meant only to exclude the Tutsi minority. They are also meant to undermine the possibility of the political elites on the Hutu side from challenging Nkurinziza and other people in his circle,” she said.
Back in 2015, Bouka points out, it was Hutus who wanted a chance at the presidency who began a rebellion that spiraled into months of intense violence.