Burundi’s Constitutional Referendum Sets A Worrisome Precedent For Central Africa

Following a wave of violence that has been plaguing the nation of Burundi, this week the people voted to approve the referendum which would allow their current president Pierre Nkurunziza to continue in his position until 2034.

The referendum extends the length of the presidential term from five years to seven, though it limits the president to a total of two terms. However, the installation of a new constitution contains a critical loophole: not addressing the context of the current president’s past and present terms. Therefore, Nkurunziza, who took power after a bloody civil war which killed more than 300,000 Burundians in 2005, may be looking to serve as the nation’s top official for yet another decade and a half.

Nkurunziza’s presidency has already been extended beyond the normal limits due to an electoral technicality which allowed him to bypass the rules of officials elected by the people. With his initial term being secured through the parliament, rather than the traditional popular vote, the Constitutional Court upheld the legality of a third term run in 2015. This announcement led to an outbreak of unprecedented violence and strong state repression of civil society groups, as well as religious and political opposition. According to United Nations reports, since the 2015 election more than 1,700 people have been killed and 425,000 displaced.

Many of these refugees fled neighbouring countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Tanzania, and Rwanda as a result of extreme state pressure to join the dominant political party (CNDD-FDD.) The current constitution contains protections for minority parties, including power-sharing rules that require any party with at least five percent of the vote be given a seat in the president’s cabinet. However, under the new constitution, these provisions have been eliminated. Jean Claude Karerwa, a spokesman for President Nkurunziza, explained that the rationale behind these measures was to increase efficiency in the government, allowing the president to more effectively fulfill his election promises by removing the rules which force the opposition into seats of power.

A further worry regarding the removal of quotas is that without them, the proportional representation of the major ethnic populations in Burundi—the Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa—in the higher levels of government will collapse. These quotas were first established in the Arusha Peace Accords which ended the Burundian Civil War, as a means of alleviating ethnic tension that stoked much of the conflict’s violence. It is worrying that removing these measures will stoke ethnic grievances, leading to another outbreak of violence. That being said, Burundian politicians assert that the leading cause of tension no longer resides in ethnicity, but rather in party affiliation.

Many see the removal of minority parties from the bench as far more significant than ethnic quotas being overturned, as according to opposition leader Agathon Rwasa “[today it is] political party membership which determines one’s access to jobs, education, and other opportunities.” It should be noted that the dominant CNDD-FDD not only holds Hutu interests as a major tenant, but is also composed nearly entirely of the members of the same ethnic group.

The biggest fear for the international community is that other countries in the region will see the success of Nkurunziza’s referendum and follow suit. Already, the president of the DRC, Joseph Kabila, has refused to vacate his position at the end of his mandated two terms. Repeated demands for free and open elections have been met with increasingly violent crackdowns, and Kabila continues to refuse aid from the United Nations—which he views as international meddling in the country’s politicsthis aid was allocated to assist the nearly 5 million malnourished citizens, who are now being left without crucial resources in the wake of the country’s political collapse.

Though the new referendum was voted in with nearly 80 percent support, many Burundians say that their vote was heavily influenced by the environment of intimidation and oppression. On the eve of voting day, members of the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the governing party known for committing acts of violence, maintained a strong, highly visible presence both at the president’s residence as well as around popular voting locations. Many were wielding improvised spears or even machetes.

This vote has the potential to instill unrest not only in Burundi, but in the region at large. As all eyes are on the president, today he demonstrates clear control of a growing and worrisome diplomatic narrative in Central Africa; without intervention, oppression and fear will reign uncontested.

About Galen Shen

Galen is a fourth year undergraduate at the University of Chicago studying East Asian Civilizations with a focus on international relations and human rights. Following graduation, she hopes to participate in on the ground relief efforts in under-served communities in East Asia, and later return stateside to pursue graduate studies.