On Saturday May 19, a Burundian opposition coalition, the Amizero y’Abarundi bloc, announced to The Associated Press that it would not accept the results of the nation’s recent referendum. Agathon Rwasa, the head of the bloc, labelled the vote a “parody” and “undemocratic.” It has been reported by Al Jazeera that 4.8 million voters were asked whether current President Pierre Nkurunziza should be permitted to pursue two more seven-year terms after his current position lapses in 2020. Hypothetically, if passed the referendum would allow Nkurunziza to rule until 2034. Although the electoral commission is yet to publicise the results, predictions indicate a majority ‘yes’ vote.
Whilst the process of a referendum is inherently democratic, the opposition has criticised the way the ballots have been conducted. In announcing his bloc’s rejection of the results, Rwasa noted that “some of our members have been kidnapped, others beaten … some were forced to vote ‘yes’ and during counting our representative were expelled.” Rwasa’s depiction has been supported by reports from the Human Rights Watch (HRW), which has determined at least 15 people opposing the election have been killed. A further eight were abducted and six raped. In a statement on Friday, the HRW suggested that numbers were likely higher due to victims being “unwilling or unable to report abuses.” The implications of such violence are best encapsulated by HRW’s African director Ida Sawyer, who stated that the vote had occurred in a “climate that is clearly not conducive to free choice.”
In conjunction with such flawed ballots, the Burundian opposition has refused the results of the referendum due to the pejorative ramifications of the outcome itself. Burundian human rights activist Denis Ndayishemeza stated his expectation that the referendum would result in a “dictatorship [being] … enforced,” and increased violence. President Nkurunziza gained office in 2005 after a twelve-year civil war, and according to the Arusha Accords, was stipulated a maximum of two five-year terms. In 2015, Nkurunziza skirted this stipulation with a constitutional technicality, noting that because he was not voted in as president in 2005, he could run for another term. Ensuing protests resulted in a political crisis, in which an attempted coup was quashed. The U.N. estimated 439 to have died, and 240,000 to have fled. Reflecting upon this historical violence and the similarity of circumstances, the opposition’s fears of increased violence are well-founded, and instances of conflict are already evident. According to BBC News, 26 Burundians were recently killed by attackers who had crossed from the Democratic Republic of Congo. Regardless of whether the killings were motivated by the referendum, the unstable sociopolitical climate has undoubtedly contributed to its occurrence.
The referendum has also proposed other constitutional changes that consolidate Nkurunziza’s power. Firstly, it has been proposed that the constitutionally protected vice president positions are abandoned, and power is shifted from the government to the president. Secondly, the ballot proposes that extradition is outlawed. Although Burundi left the International Criminal Court in October 2017, proceedings launched before its departure can continue. The outlawing of extradition would therefore serve to protect any incriminated individuals.
Fundamentally, the referendum serves to provide Nkurunziza with more power over an increasingly long period of time. Additionally, it limits the capacity for international institutions to intervene. Burundi’s opposition should thus be praised for objecting to such a change that is silencing others. Nevertheless, the process of the referendum itself should be applauded. It is through this that the Burundians can exercise their independence. Regardless of the dubious nature of the proposed constitutional amendments, the Burundian government is well within its right to suggest such change, and Burundian citizens are entitled to make their own informed decisions without persecution.
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