Of the 4,7 million registered Burundian voters, 96 percent cast their ballot in the referendum towards a new constitution that includes an amendment that could see President Pierre Nkurunziza retain power until 2034. With a voter turnout of 96 percent, Pierre-Claver Ndayicariye, Burundi’s election commission chief, said in a news conference that 73 percent of those who took part voted “yes” and 19 percent voted “no” in a referendum to change the constitution.
The most controversial of the constitutional reforms include measures that give the current president and his ruling CNDD-FDD the agency to supersede the law and make changes that favour him, such as extending the presidential term. This means that Nkurunziza, who came into power for a third term in 2015, could start all over again come 2020.
Nkurunziza was due to step down in 2015 but went on to seek a third term. This triggered an attempted coup and a crackdown that cost at least 1 200 lives and left more than 400 000 people homeless.
Evariste Ngayimpenda, the top official of the Amizero y’Abarundi opposition coalition, denounced the referendum as “a process that was tainted by many incidents, including arrests, imprisonments and killings”.
“We reject these results and we will file a complaint because the process was marred by lot of irregularities, even during the counting of the votes,” he said in a statement.
International and human rights concerns
Despite the government claiming the process was free and fair, rights groups have echoed the opposition’s sentiments that campaigning and the vote itself took place in a climate of fear and intimidation.
A spokeswoman for the US State Department, Heather Nauert, said that although the Burundian government had allowed vigorous campaigning by the opposition during the designated two-week campaign period, this could not counter the already fearful atmosphere that had been cultivated. She said, “Numerous cases of harassment and repression of referendum opponents in the months preceding the vote contributed to a climate of fear and intimidation.”
In fact, in the period leading up to the vote, legislators approved a draft law that would give police the power to conduct night-time raids on private homes. “The ruling party has just buried democracy in Burundi,” one opposition MP stated after the decision.
This environment of political and economic strife, since the last civil war and the events of 2015 to date, has made the quality of life in Burundi abysmal for most citizens. According to the UN’s Humanitarian Response Plan, more than a quarter of the population, which is about 3,6 million Burundians, need aid just to get by. This is an almost 20 percent increase over 2017. However, aid is not accessible to them as, according to the 2018 Response Plan, there are numerous “legal and administrative restrictions [that] limit current and future operational efficiency” of aid agencies and their ability to travel into the interior of the country, except in extremely urgent cases. It adds that legislation covering NGOs adopted in January 2017 undermined the independence of aid agencies.
Philippe Adapoe, Save the Children’s country director in Rwanda, said these factors “remain a key issue for humanitarian actors”.
In matters of accountability, Burundi became the first country to withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC) after the court announced it would launch an investigation into the human rights abuses committed by Burundian security forces and affiliated groups over the past few years. The ICC said the alleged crimes include murder and attempted murder, imprisonment or severe deprivation of liberty, torture, rape, enforced disappearance and persecution.
The referendum has also nullified the Arusha peace deal, signed in 2000. This deal ended Burundi’s 1993-2006 civil war and put in place measures that would hinder either ethnic group – the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi – from clinging to power.
The results of the referendum ultimately do not bode well for the future of Burundi and has put an end to even the shreds of democracy that the country had left.