On May 17th, the people of Burundi voted to pass a referendum extending the length of presidential term limits. 73 percent of voters voted yes to allowing presidents to serve for two seven-year terms instead of five-year terms. Voter turnout was very high, at 96 percent. The referendum will allow the current president of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, to remain in office until 2034, after being in power since 2005. Also as a result of the referendum, several powers which traditionally reside with the wider government will be transferred to the president himself, thus increasing Nkurunziza’s power.
The reaction regarding this referendum has been highly controversial. Many feel that the outcome came as a result of rigging and political pressure. Leading up to the election, voices of opposition to the referendum have been violently silenced by government forces. Those who spoke out faced abuse and intimidation not to spread the message of opposition. Some foreign radio broadcasting stations were banned in an effort to suppress opposition and prevent news of the abuses from spreading. Abstaining from voting was declared a criminal act, which would be punishable with up to three years in prison. As a result, the people of Burundi were too fearful to speak out against the referendum, let alone vote against it.
The turmoil has not ended after the referendum was passed. Human Rights Watch reported 15 members of opposition killed after the vote, while still others have been raped and abducted. Members of the opposition remain in jail, most notably Germain Rukuki who is facing 32 years in prison. The leader of an opposition group has publicly rejected the referendum’s outcome. He stated that the results were brought about by government pressure and widespread fear to vote against it. The opposition declares that the government’s threats and violence against those who spoke out against the referendum led to a skewed result. Agathon Rwasa, a former rebel leader, has called on the electoral commission to hold the election again, this time free of political intimidation. The opposition has filed a complaint to invalidate the results of the vote due to the government’s unfair interference.
The reaction of the opposition could lead to the eruption of further violence in Burundi. The Guardian reports that Hussen Radjubu, a member of the opposition, has declared “We now need … to remove [Nkurunziza] by use of arms.” He advocates for an armed uprising against the government, which has the potential to plunge the nation into civil war. With numbers of IDP’s and refugees already on the rise in the wake of the government’s oppressive measures, this step would only spell out more trouble. In addition, relations with Burundi’s neighbouring countries have become strained due to the burden placed upon them by the high influx of refugees. If Burundi’s constitutional court does not rule against the referendum, then the opposition may turn to this use of force. Should this occur, the humanitarian crisis with be exacerbated and the lives of many Burundians could be at stake.
Another serious consequence of the passing of this referendum is the threat now posed to the Arusha Peace Accords. This agreement was signed in 2000 to end the bloody civil war between ethnic groups. The terms of the agreement included ethnic quotas for members of the government. These quotas ensured that various ethnic groups would be fairly represented in the political system, thus satisfying all people. The referendum, however, allows for some revision of the ethnic quotas in place.
Upsetting these quotas is likely to anger ethnic groups and bring about civil war once again. On top of the revision of the quotas, the referendum allows for the government to redistribute some political powers from government ministers to the president, which would further increase the power of Nkurunziza. These changes may lead to further abuses by top government officials, as power becomes even more centralized. The people of Burundi are now relying on the court system to respond positively to the appeal against the referendum. Blocking the referendum would give the nation the chance to maintain the political order introduced by the Arusha Peace Accords, and hopefully to preserve its democracy.