Violence Looms in Burundi Ahead of Constitutional Referendum

This article was originally posted in Political Insights.


By Katie Dobosz Kenney


Burundi is bracing itself for a constitutional referendum, announced on May 8, 2018 by the country’s ruling party. Katie Dobosz Kenney examines the lead up to the referendum as the bouts of violence in Burundi continue to increase.


Burundi’s ruling party, the National Council for the Defense of Democracy — Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), launched a long-discussed campaign for a constitutional referendum on May 2, 2018. The referendum calls for an amendment to the constitutional provision on presidential term limits, allowing current president, Pierre Nkurunziza to stay in office until 2034. Pierre Nkurunziza has served as Burundi’s president since 2005 following the violent 12-year civil war, marked by ethnic conflict between the country’s Hutu majority and Tutsi minority leaving over 300,000 people dead. The conflict ended with the signing of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi, which instated an ethnic quota system for political representation alongside laying the foundation for the 2005 constitution.


After a period of relative political and civil stability, Nkurunziza controversially ran for a third term in 2015, despite limitation of two, five-year terms for presidents. The election sparked a political crisis and an attempted coup, resulting in the deaths of an estimated 500 dissidents including protesters, opposition leaders, and human rights advocates. Approximately 230,000 Burundiansfled to neighboring countries, including Rwanda, DRC, and Tanzania, a number that has since grown to over 400,000 for fear of government coercion and intimidation, as well as poor access to resources and economic opportunity.


Burundi’s government is currently the subject of an open investigation by the ICC into crimes against humanity in 2015–2016 on charges of “imprisonment or severe deprivation of liberty, torture, rape, enforced disappearance” in the wake of the 2015 election. Burundi became the first nation to pull out of the Rome Statute and the ICC in October of 2017. Additionally, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2303 to further monitor the security and human rights situation. The above mentioned scrutiny sets the stage for the current political climate.


One of the chief political concerns with the referendum is its violation of Article 299, which states that any revision to the constitution that disrupts national unity, cohesion, reconciliation, democracy etc. should not be implemented. This violation is the topic of local Twitter feeds and Burundi’s only independent media outlet, IWACU, and is supported by the Burundi Conference of Catholic Bishops. Archbishop Joachim Ntahondereyefeels the timing of the vote is inopportune and would create further ruptures, as so many are currently displaced and unable to participate, and those who remain fear government backlash for expressing their beliefs.


The fear of government retaliation is further exacerbated by government officials calling for the use of violence against political opponents, with language such as “castrate the enemy,” as well as grassroots reports of violent beatings by the Imbonerakure, the CNDD-FDD’s youth militia, who are known for their brutal use of rape to as a tactic of coercion. In February and March of this year 22 killings and 60 unlawful detentions had already taken place related to the referendum, according to a report by CIVICUS of South Africa.


Opposition parties are frustrated that the proposed constitutional amendment has largely taken place in secret and therefore not fully assessed by all parties. The lack of information has prompted a variety of stances from oppositional leaders; the Amizero y’Abarundi Coalition is outright campaigning for a vote of no whereas the National Rally for Change (RANAC) is simply not participating in campaigning. Much of the political opposition remains in exile as well.


Accurately assessing the situation on the ground is challenging as Burundi’s National Council for Communication cracks down on coverage of the referendum campaign. Local media outlets are almost non-existent — Burundi is ranked 159 out of 180 for freedom of the press by Reporters Without Borders. On Sunday May 6, action was taken against local and international media outlets as the BBC and VOA were issued six-month suspensions for violating Burundian press laws, as well as two Burundian and a French radio station were issued warnings for not using properly verified sources. The many Burundian journalists in exile have to work anonymously in order to continue reporting and protect their own lives as well as those of their family.


As the hospitality of national hosting Burundian refugees wears thin, the international community, including the EAC, AU, United States, and UN, must do more than condemn the actions of the CNDD-FDD and President Nkurunziza. Familiar use of incendiary, ethnically charged languagecould reignite old tensions; and with approximately a quarter of the of the population in need of humanitarian assistance, the world needs to turn its attention to tangible actions for Burundi as this referendum will surely exacerbate humanitarian needs.


Katie Dobosz Kenney holds an MS in Global Affairs from New York University with a concentration in Peacebuilding. An educator for almost 10 years, Katie had developed global and peace education curricula in Florida, Mississippi, and Timor-Leste. Katie currently works as a graduate program administrator at NYU’s Center for Global Affairs and has co-led study abroad programs to South Africa and the UAE.


The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the views of their employer or Young Professionals in Foreign Policy.