Burundi, a landlocked African nation has conducted a public referendum to amend its Constitution on 17th May, 2018. The referendum which is marred with blood of the innocent is speculated to throw the nation back into a state of war from which it had recovered in 2005. This article briefly throws light on the demography, political history of Burundi and the reasons why it went into a civil war. Thereafter, it discusses what the referendum purports to change and its deleterious effects and then explain that how the Burundian regime is currently violating human rights.
Historically, Burundi has been ruled by the Tutsi Monarchy (ethnic group). The Colonial regimes followed the same power structure and perpetuated the rule of the Tutsi minority over the Hutu majority. Ever since, Burundi’s independence from the Colonial Federation with Rwanda in 1962, Burundi had preserved its monarchy. With approximately 25 years of Tutsi military regimes and continuous bloodshed, Burundi saw its first multi-party national elections in June 1993. On October 21 1993, its first democratically elected Hutu President, Melchior Ndadaye, was assassinated by Tutsi extremists. This lead to violent attacks and culminated to the Burundian Genocide against the Tutsi minority. The atrocities were followed by a long civil war. In November 2003 the main Hutu rebel group, National Council for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD)–Forces for the Defense of Democracy (FDD), President Ndayizeye (transitional Hutu President) signed a ceasefire agreement at a summit of African leaders in Tanzania. Under this agreement, the FDD became a political party.
Finally, the civil-war ended in 2005 with the Burundians approving their Constitution through a referendum. FDD won the elections and Pierre Nkurunziza, from the Hutu FDD group, was elected as president by the two Hutu-dominated houses of parliament.
The Arusha Accords were instrumental in putting an end to the Burundian civil war. Two major terms of this Accord were the representation of Hutu 60% , Tutsi 40% in the Government and the Parliament of Burundi and that an individual could run for a Presidential office only twice. In 2015, the two time President, since 2005, Pierre Nkurunziza, announced his candidature for the third time. The opposition termed it as unconstitutional but he managed to circumvent the law by arguing that in 2005 he was elected by the two houses of the Parliament and not by the people thus the first time doid not count. The Judiciary permitted it.
Many Human Rights Groups claimed that the 2015 elections were neither free nor fair. Over 1,200 people were killed and 4,00,000 displaced. The International Criminal Court (ICC) even initiated an investigation for Crimes against Humanity in Burundi. Interestingly, in 2017 Burundi was the first nation to walk out of the Rome Statute which gives the jurisdiction to the ICC.
How does the current referendum for Constitutional Amendment affect the peace in Africa? President Nkurunziza’s regime which started in 2005, was to end in 2020. But this referendum purports to do away with this limitation and perpetuates his rule till 2034. This is achieved in two steps. First, the amendment increases the term of Presidential rule from 5 to seven years. Second, the amended Constitution does not count, the past Presidential Elections thus Nkurunziza gets to run for two more terms of seven years each.
Another major concern is that though the referendum does not out-rightly change the Hutu-Tutsi representation formula but it does empower the Senate to modify it at a later stage. This representation formula was string which has kept Burundi from falling into a civil war since 2005 and many groups fear that even a minor change in the same will wreak havoc. Various groups fear the emergence of a Totalitarian State as this referendum now empowers the President to appoint the Prime Minister thus there is no scope for the opposition to achieve that post. Further, the erstwhile office of the two Vice Presidents has been done away with and all the powers have been consolidated in the hands of the President.
This being said, the ruling government has actively campaigned for ‘yes’ but the opposition has claimed that only a veneer of inclusiveness is projected but in actuality the opposition is unable to run a successful ‘no’ campaign. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has accused the government of intimidation. Burundi’s exiled opposition has formed an alliance ‘National Council for Respect of Arusha Accord’ and have urged the citizenry to boycott the referendum, claiming the referendum to be a ‘death knell’ of the Arusha Accords. Murder of 26 including children in the rural Burundi with guns and machetes only a few days before the referendum by alleged terrorist groups has already left the nation aghast.
Those urging the citizenry to boycott the referendum could be sentenced by the government for three years. Burundi’s press regulator has already suspended the broadcast of BBC and VOI (Voice of America) and warned FRI (Radio France Internationale). The regime in Burundi is going hard on the press; many journalists have left the country following threats. Many International Organisations have claimed that the referendum was held in an atmosphere of intimidation and fear.
President Nkurunziza, like his neighbours is changing the Constitution or using other means to perpetuate his regime. The Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni, in power since 1986, could now rule until at least 2031 after parliament last year voted to remove the presidential age limit. Similarly Congolese President Joseph Kabila has elongated his term by delaying elections.
Activists have claimed that irrespective of the result, the referendum will lead to violence and urged the International Community to prevent such dictatorial actions in a democratic regime.
Author: Pranav Bhaskar Tiwari