The Burundi government under President Pierre Nkurunziza has launched a campaign to extend presidential term limits from two 5-year terms to two 7-year terms. The proposed constitutional referendum would allow Nkurunziza to serve for 14 more years, despite the terms he has already completed. Violence erupted in the nation after Nkurunziza’s decision to run for an unconstitutional third term in 2015, and conflict has defined the political situation ever sense. Now the government has been violently oppressing opponents of the referendum leading up to the election, which is set for May 17th. The CNC, which is the government-controlled communication council, has tightened controls on the media in an effort to prevent opposition and reports of violence. The CNC has banned both the BBC and the VOA from broadcasting in the region. In addition, the online comments section of Burundi’s main newspaper has been disabled. These changes represent a significant threat to civil liberties of the people of Burundi.
While the media crackdown is significant, it pales in comparison to the political violence civilians are facing. Party officials who oppose the referendum as well as human rights activitists have been targeted. Government forces have exiled, harassed, and killed people for speaking out against the issue. They have destroyed radio stations and some journalists have gone missing. The Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling party, have played a part in carrying out the acts of violence. Numerous arrests have been matched with torture, beatings, and rape in efforts to silence opposition to the referendum and Nkurunziza’s regime.
This political violence has contributed to the growing number of refugees fleeing Burundi for safety concerns. The Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) estimates the number of refugees at 427,800 since 2015, and this number only continues to grow as political conditions worsen ahead of the upcoming election. The flood of these refugees into Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, and the DRC has put a strain on these countries, and their openness to refugees is waning. IRIN reports that relations between Burundi and both Rwanda and Tanzania are deteriorating, and Tanzania aims to increase repatriations of refugees. However, the political violence currently underway in Burundi deters refugees from returning. OCHA reports the number of internally displaced people at 188,000, which only worsens Burundi’s humanitarian crisis. As the fourth poorest country in the world, over 3.6 million people in Burundi are in need of aid. A lack of clean drinking water has led to cholera outbreaks in the nation, and food insecurity and acute malnutrition are widespread problems.
The East African Community has led mediation efforts to address the crisis. Unfortunately, this process has not been able to decrease tensions between the government and the opposition. IRIN cites the rigid and uncooperative behavior of the Nkurunziza regime as an obstacle to mediation, and the violent suppression continues.
The CFR expressed concern that the continuation of this political crisis will give rise to ethnic conflict, which has erupted from violence in Burundi in the past. The revision threatens the Arusha Accords, which is the peace agreement that put an end to Burundi’s civil war in the nineties. The agreement established a government framework that would satisfy competing political groups, yet the passing of the referendum would end the accord and pose a risk to the peace it created. If civil war ensued, the already increasing number of those whose security is at risk would grow, bringing about a further increase in refugees and IDPs in Burundi. The passing of this referendum could spell out a higher degree of political violence, putting even more civilians at risk. BBC News reports that a “cult of personality” is developing around President Nkurunziza. As a result, the passing of the referendum would likely spark further outrage throughout Burundi in opposition to the president staying in power for an additional 14 years. In addition, the Library of Congress’ Global Legal monitor reports that some feel that the current presidential regime is prioritizing the few who hold power, at the expense of the wider population who suffers from poverty. Should the current regime stay in power, the nation’s real problems regarding poverty may not be addressed for another 14 years.