Burundi goes to the polls on 17 May to vote in a constitutional referendum, which could extend President Pierre Nkurunziza’s rule to 2034. Here’s why the vote has become a contentious issue:

Who is President Nkurunziza?

He is a former rebel leader who came to power at the end of Burundi’s ethnically-charged civil war in 2005.

His run for a controversial third term in 2015 set off a wave of violence and an attempted coup, which was foiled by government forces. The political crisis led to hundreds of deaths, and more than 400,000 people fled the country, according to the United Nations (UN).

Critics at the time called his move unconstitutional. But supporters of Mr Nkurunziza, a born-again Christian and father of five, who has his own football team, said he was justified in running for a third term.

They argued that he had technically only done one term as he was first elected into power in 2005 by parliament – not voters. It is a view that was later upheld by Burundi’s Constitutional Court, although there were reports that the judges had been intimidated.

The president portrays himself as a man of the people, and this has brought him widespread support in the rural areas, says Robert Misigaro from the BBC Great Lakes service. This is a demographic that his opponents have failed to harness, our correspondent adds.

Mr Nkurunziza was re-elected in July 2015 in a poll boycotted by the opposition. The International Criminal Court (ICC) is investigating the abuses and violence, following a 2017 UN report detailing killings, torture and rape, allegedly committed largely by pro-government forces in that period.

Read more about Pierre Nkurunziza

What is the referendum about?

Burundians will vote Yes or No on whether to extend presidential terms from five years to a seven-year mandate.

There is currently a two-term limit in place for presidents. The changes could also allow Mr Nkurunziza to contest the 2020 elections, and potentially enjoy another two terms, as under a new constitution, he would start from scratch.

Other changes include a new post for a prime minister, the scrapping of the second vice-president post, and a clause that could see ethnic quotas – of 60% for Hutus and 40% for Tutsis – in the Senate and National Assembly, evaluated and potentially ended in five-years’ time.

Ethnic quotas enabled the Tutsi minority, which used to dominate the country, to enjoy a veto since laws are adopted through a two-thirds majority in the Senate.

Mr Nkurunziza used to head a Hutu rebel group which battled the Tutsi-dominated army.

Why are tensions running high?

The government has been accused by rights groups of launching a campaign of repression, violence and fear to ensure the vote goes in President Nkurunziza’s favour ahead of the vote.

Observers fear that it could kick off a political crisis similar to the one seen in 2015.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Some 400,000 people fled Burundi in 2015, the UN says

The government strongly denies allegations of repression and says the claims are propaganda disseminated by exiles.

In a rare punishment of a government supporter, a ruling party official who called for the drowning of opponents has been jailed. The ruling CNDD-FDD party said on Twitter in April that it rejected the “subversive message which may jeopardize unity and cohesion among the Burundian people”.

Still, more than 50 members of the opposition coalition Amizero y’Abarundi were arrested over a single week last month, according to SOS Medias Burundi, a network of independent journalists.

Human rights activist Germain Rukuki was sentenced to 32 years in prison in April on charges that Amnesty International said had been “trumped up”.

“The abuse reflects the widespread impunity for local authorities, the police and members of the ruling party’s youth league, the Imbonerakure,” Human Rights Watch wrote in April of allegations that ruling party officials had killed, beaten and detained perceived opponents.

The US has denounced the violence and called the government “to respect Burundi’s international legal obligations regarding the rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association”, the US State Department said in a statement. “Such efforts by incumbents to enact constitutional changes to remain in power beyond term limits weaken democratic institutions,” it said.

Days before the vote, on 12 May, more than 25 people were killed after an armed attack on a village in north-west Burundi. BBC correspondents say the attack might have been an attempt to disrupt the referendum.

On 4 May, Burundi’s government said the BBC and VOA broadcasts would be suspended for six months, accusing the BBC of failing to challenge an exiled Burundian activist interviewed on its French service.

The BBC has accepted that the programme did not meet its strict editorial guidelines and has asked the government to lift the suspension.

Who are the referendum’s supporters and detractors?

The ruling CNDD-FDD party, which Mr Nkurunziza leads, and a coalition of supporting parties, are backing a Yes vote.

Opposition leader Agaton Rwasa, who leads the coalition Amizero y’Abarundi, has been campaigning for a No vote.

Anyone who calls for the vote to be boycotted risks up to three years in jail.

The Catholic church has also come out against Mr Nkurunziza. In early May, 10 prominent Bishops signed a statement saying it was not the “appropriate time to make profound changes” to the constitution.

Burundi’s exiled opposition groups, have made an alliance called CNARED, and called for a boycott of the referendum, AFP reports.

It calls the vote a “death knell” to the 2000 Arusha Peace accords, which helped end the country’s civil war and stipulates that no leader can run the country for more than 10 years.



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