Burundians are voting today in a referendum proposing constitutional changes that could allow President Pierre Nkurunziza extend his rule until 2034.
The constitutional amendments have been widely criticized, with the United States early this month denouncing “violence, intimidation, and harassment” against those thought to oppose the referendum and expressed concern about the “non-transparent process” of changing the constitution.
In Bujumbura, the capital and across the country, there are long lines of voters and security forces have been deployed in all parts of the country.
Burundians are being asked to vote yes or no to a proposal to extend the president’s term from five years to seven, which would allow Nkurunziza to rule for another 14 years when his current term expires in 2020.
Burundi National Independent Electoral Commission (CENI) has said five million people are registered to vote amid claims from opposition leader and deputy speaker of parliament Agathon Rwasa on Thursday that some of his voters were being arrested and denied to vote.
The current constitution, adopted in 2005, is borrowed from the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, which helped end Burundi’s civil war and enabled power sharing in government and, with greater success, the military.
Power sharing as a result of the Arusha Agreement has been the glue that united Burundians, human rights activists have said.
According to the Arusha Agreement, Tutsis should hold 40 percent of posts in the government and the national assembly, as well as 50 percent of all seats in the Senate and the military.
But among one of the major new changes being introduced, the Senate will be given powers to review these quotas after five years when the new constitution has been adopted.
The new constitution also exempts members of National Intelligence Service from respecting these quotas of 50-50 percent in military and police.
Nkurunziza has insisted the constitutional changes were demanded by Burundians and what is happening “is people’s choice,” saying those opposed to the amendments will be dealt with by God.
Many in Burundi, a poor country that still relies heavily on foreign aid, worry that a new round of bloodshed will follow the referendum no matter its results. Already more than 400,000 people have fled the country since April 2015, according to the U.N.
“Many of our people have been arrested but this will not stop our win. There is no way President Nkurunziza can win in a free and fair process,” Rwasa’s spokesperson Aime Magera said Thursday before he cast his vote.
The controversial vote means that Nkurunziza, 54, can stand again in 2020 after his third mandate ends. In effect it authorises him to stand for another two terms of seven years, meaning that Nkurunziza, could be in power until 2034.
Nkurunziza, a former rebel leader, rose to power in 2005 following the signing of the Arusha accords that ended Burundi’s civil war that killed about 300,000 people.
He was re-elected unopposed in 2010 after the opposition boycotted the vote. He said he was eligible for a third term in 2015 because lawmakers, not the general population, had chosen him for his first term. Critics called his pursuit of a third term unconstitutional.
“It’s the people of Burundi to decide about their future and nobody else,” said Gen. Evariste Ndayishimiye, CNDD-FDD’s secretary-general.
Nkurunziza has not commented on whether he will stand for re-election in 2020, but it is widely expected he will.
This referendum is already rigged because you don’t expect transparent results when so many dissidents silenced, civil society stifled,” said Vital Nshimirimana, Burundi human rights activist.