Bu­run­di­ans vote on laws that ex­tend leader’s term

Amend­ment will in­crease terms to seven years and al­low­ing pres­i­dent to stand again in 2020

Daily Nation (Kenya) - - WORLD - BUJUMBURA, Bu­rundi, Thurs­day

Bu­run­di­ans voted to­day in a ref­er­en­dum on con­sti­tu­tional re­forms that, if passed, will shore up the power of Pres­i­dent Pierre Nku­run­z­iza and en­able him to rule until 2034.

Po­lice, sol­diers and ar­moured ve­hi­cles were out in force for the ref­er­en­dum, which comes three years af­ter Nku­run­z­iza sought a con­tro­ver­sial third term, trig­ger­ing a po­lit­i­cal cri­sis that has killed 1,200 and forced 400,000 from their homes.

Long lines were seen at polling sta­tions around the coun­try. How­ever, op­po­si­tion par­ties and wit­nesses re­ported that polling of­fi­cials and a feared youth mili­tia, the Im­bon­er­akure, had been in­tim­i­dat­ing vot­ers or go­ing door-to-door to de­mand peo­ple turn out to cast their bal­lot.

There were “in­tim­i­da­tions of ev­ery kind and even peo­ple go­ing to polling sta­tions, forc­ing peo­ple to vote against their will,” said main op­po­si­tion leader and for­mer rebel Agathon Rwasa.

In con­trast, pres­i­den­tial spokesman Willy Nyamitwe on Twit­ter praised the “peace­ful cli­mate” in which many turned out to vote.

“I came at dawn be­cause I was im­pa­tient to vote ‘yes’ to con­sol­i­date the in­de­pen­dence and sovereignty of our coun­try,” said a farmer, who gave his name only as Miburo, in the town of Ngozi.

Polling sta­tions be­gan clos­ing at 1400 GMT and count­ing got un­der­way im­me­di­ately. It was un­clear when re­sults would be an­nounced.

Some 4.8 mil­lion peo­ple, or a lit­tle un­der half the pop­u­la­tion, had signed up to vote, ac­cord­ing to the In­de­pen­dent Na­tional Elec­toral Com­mis­sion (CENI). They were asked sim­ply to vote “yes” or “no” in the “con­sti­tu­tional ref­er­en­dum of May 2018” with no ques­tion posed on the bal­lot.

The cur­rent con­sti­tu­tion al­lows a pres­i­dent to serve two five-year terms.

In 2015, Nku­run­z­iza claimed that be­cause he had been elected by par­lia­ment in 2005, he was en­ti­tled to a third term — a move that un­leashed a spi­ral of deadly vi­o­lence.

The sweep­ing re­forms, which in­clude in­creas­ing terms to seven years, would al­low him to stand again in 2020.

The changes will be adopted if more than 50 per cent of cast bal­lots are in favour.

With op­po­nents cowed and ex­iled, there seems lit­tle doubt the amend­ments will pass, en­abling the 54-year-old Nku­run­z­iza — in power since 2005 — to re­main in charge for an­other 16 years.

Since his third-term run, jour­nal­ists, ac­tivists and mem­bers of civil so­ci­ety have been forced into ex­ile, and, ac­cord­ing to the FIDH, “the en­tirety of the po­lit­i­cal, ad­min­is­tra­tive, ju­di­cial and se­cu­rity sys­tems have come un­der the stran­gle­hold of the pres­i­dent’s clan”.

Mr Nku­run­z­iza is an evan­gel­i­cal who be­lieves he was cho­sen by God to rule the small, poor east African na­tion, and spends much time en­gaged in reli­gious ac­tiv­i­ties or play­ing foot­ball.

The In­ter­na­tional Fed­er­a­tion for Hu­man Rights (FIDH) said there had been “a campaign of terror to force Bu­run­di­ans to vote yes”.

How­ever not all did so.

A 60-year-old woman, speak­ing on con­di­tion of anonymity, told AFP by tele­phone she voted no “out of con­vic­tion, to show that a large part of the pop­u­la­tion is re­sist­ing even if I know they will steal our vote.”

No in­ter­na­tional ob­servers are mon­i­tor­ing the vote, and most foreign cor­re­spon­dents were prevented from en­ter­ing the coun­try due to ad­min­is­tra­tive hur­dles.

Bu­rundi’s press reg­u­la­tor has sus­pended lo­cal broad­casts by the BBC and Voice of Amer­ica (VOA).

For many crit­ics, the ref­er­en­dum is yet an­other blow to hopes of last­ing peace in the fledg­ling democ­racy.

Bu­rundi’s his­tory has been marked by vi­o­lence be­tween ma­jor­ity Hutu and the mi­nor­ity Tutsi who had long held power.

Decades of spo­radic vi­o­lence ex­ploded in 1993 af­ter the as­sas­si­na­tion of the coun­try’s first Hutu pres­i­dent, Mel­chior Nda­daye, un­leash­ing a civil war that would last until 2006 and leave more than 300,000 dead.

A peace deal, signed in the Tan­za­nian city of Arusha in 2000, paved the way to end­ing the fight­ing.

It also led to a con­sti­tu­tion — now due to be changed — that lim­ited pres­i­den­tial terms and en­sured power could not be con­cen­trated in the hands of ei­ther eth­nic group. (AFP)

I came at dawn be­cause I was im­pa­tient to vote ‘yes’ to con­sol­i­date the in­de­pen­dence and sovereignty of our coun­try’’

A farmer, who gave his name only as Miburo, in the town of Ngozi.

PHOTO | AFP

Staff check the val­lot box for the ref­er­en­dum on a con­tro­ver­sial con­sti­tu­tional re­form in Ngozi, north­ern Bu­rundi, yes­ter­day. The con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment would al­low the in­cum­bent Pres­i­dent Pierre Nku­run­z­iza, a 65-year-old for­mer rebel leader who has ruled since 2006, to re­main for an­other 17 years in power.

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