Burundi's contentious constitutional referendum reflects deeper political problems

South African President Jacob Zuma (front row, center) visits Burundi, February 25, 2016. Photo Credit: GovernmentZA. Flickr, CC license.

On May 17, 2018, Burundians will go to the polls to vote on proposed constitutional amendments. Voters will be asked to vote ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ on changes that include extending the presidential terms to seven years and restarting the count that might help current President Pierre Nkurunziza to remain in power until 2034.

Burundi's current constitution has been in place since 2005, and largely regarded along with the Arusha Accord as a covenant that ended the country’s civil war, ushering President Nkurunziza into power in 2005. Tension regarding apparent bias and coercion in the referendum campaigning process has reflected ongoing political disputes within the East African nation.

Campaign bias leading up to Burundi's referendum 

‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns have picked up steam in the official two-week campaign period which ends on May 14, 2018. But campaigning before or after this official period or by non-registered groups was strictly forbidden.

However, opponents of the constitutional amendment complain that for months government officials have backed the ‘Yes’ campaign, led by the ruling party and joined by others such as the officially-recognized branch of UPRONA (Union for National Progress).

Vice-president Joseph Butore said it was the “will of the people”, and President Nkurunziza promised it is “God’s will”  to free Burundi from foreign colonizers for a better future. He encouraged supporters to vote freely, although officials also warned against “sabotaging” the vote and told people to report suspects to police.

Agathon Rwasa, head of the Amizero y’Abarundi coalition, supports the ‘No’ campaign, insisting that the referendum does not represent the people and could possibly install an authoritarian regime. The unrecognized UPRONA joined this campaign, as did the Front for Democracy in Burundi (FRODEBU) which argues against the referendum to protect the Arusha Accord, mediated dialogue, and avoid a one-party state.

Nkurunziza's announcement that he would serve as the ruling party’s ‘Supreme Guide’ sparked worry of authoritarianism among critics.

The opposition also laments that the referendum's definitive text was not circulated publicly, preventing scrutiny of details or consultation throughout the development of proposed changes. Others argued that the public opposition rallies showed free expression:

6th day of the campaign for the referendum 2018: Agathon Rwasa, leader of the Amizero y’Abarundi coalition, was in Cibitoke Province in North-West Burundi to promote “no” against the changes to the constitution. Thousands of supporters came to greet him

Opponents of the amendment are divided, though. Those remaining in Burundi largely back ‘No’ although some dissenters back ‘Yes’. Meanwhile, exiled opposition members centered around the National Council for the Respect of the Arusha Accord and the Peace and Reconciliation of Burundi (CNARED) support a boycott. Some supporters in exile express frustration with these divisions.

One Burundian in Rwanda told Yaga, a Burundi-based blog:

Visiblement elle chancelle face à un pouvoir qui se consolide de jour en jour. Elle peine à parler d’une même voix»

“It [the opposition] is obviously staggering faced with a power which strengthens each day. It struggles to speak with one voice”

Pre-campaign coercion and clampdown

In April 2018, Human Rights Watch described “lawlessness” in the country. International Crisis Group criticized a “campaign of intimidationleading up the referendum, including arrests and even deaths of those accused of opposing the referendum. Officials reject this as mendacious to tarnish Burundi’s image.

The International Federation for Human Rights also criticized media coverage biased in favor of the ‘Yes’ camp.

Leading up the referendum, citizens report significant pressure to register to vote, to refrain from voting “No” or boycotting the referendum altogether. Controversy also surrounds reports of coerced citizencontributionsto finance elections.

SOS Médias Burundi, an underground journalist collective, used their Facebook page to report many arrests and intimidating acts, such as a video of a member of the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) threatening to “break the teeth” of ‘No’ campaigners.

Tight restrictions on media have continued throughout this campaign. The National Communications Council (CNC) recently suspended the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) accused of threatening “national cohesion”, and Voice of America (VOA) for six months.

Reporters Sans Frontières (Reporters without Borders) criticized the clampdown as another attack on press freedom, particularly to restrict debate on the referendum as both hold radio shows in the Kirundi language, making them widely accessible.

The CNC also cautioned Radio France International (RFI) and local radios Isanganiro and CCIB FM+, and in April suspended Iwacu newspaper’s online comments section for three months.

Sign of independence or return to a one-party state? 

Tensions have run high since 2015 when President Nkurunziza's third term – widely seen as prohibited by the 2005 constitution and Arusha Accord — sparked protests, a failed coup, and rebellion.

As a result, many members of the opposition, ruling CNDD-FDD party dissenters, and journalists fled abroad while others were internally displaced. While thousands have returned since 2017, the United Nations (UN) has still registered 396,000 refugees since 2015 at underfunded refugee camps. Ministers claim these figures are manipulated.

Since 2015, local and international rights monitors have criticized repression, impunity, and restrictions on media and activists by security services and the CNDD-FDD “Imbonerakure” youth-wing. Several radios were closed and journalists harassed, even disappeared. Recently, rights activist Germain Rukiki received a heavy prison sentence for “threatening state security”.

A 2017 UN Commission of Inquiry report said crimes against humanity may have occurred and saw no improvement by March. The government rejected these claims. The International Criminal Court opened an ongoing investigation, which continues despite Burundi's government leaving the court.

Political insecurity has hit economically, bringing austerity budgets, energy shortages, and inflation. A UN report in February estimated that those needing humanitarian assistance in 2018 rose to 3.6 million.

Diplomacy stalled 

International responses have been lackluster and divided, with mediated dialogue ineffective. Sanctions have amplified economic stress and the crisis has stretched relations with neighboring Rwanda in particular.

France, United States, and the European Union expressed concern over insecurity and repression around the referendum. Yet, Burundi’s UN Ambassador, Albert Shingiro, said governments should respect sovereignty. The influential Catholic Church said it was not the moment to amend the constitution, given the ongoing insecurity and many refugees unable to vote.

Government supporters argue that the referendum demonstrates independence from Western interference. Officials minimized the reforms, saying they only affect part of the constitution. Opponents expect ‘Yes’ to win, but fear it legally consolidates an “eternal president” and the return of a one-party state.

Either way, the referendum appears to have further cemented divisions while pressing political and economic challenges persist.

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