On 21 May 2018 it was confirmed that an overwhelming majority of over 73% of Burundians voted yes in a referendum that, among various other changes, could see President Pierre Nkurunziza’s rule, due to end in 2020, extended to 2034. Possible changes to the constitution include the extension of presidential terms from five to seven years; the scrapping of the second vice-president post; a new post for a Prime Minister; and a change in ethnic quotas for Hutus and Tutsis in the Senate and the National Assembly (NA).
While some areas reflected a more balanced outcome, areas such as the Cibitoke province, where 28 people were killed in an attack on 11 May, reflected an 80% yes vote. The Ngozi province in the north, where the president comes from, also reportedly had a high voter turnout with about 80% in favour of the change. Almost half the estimated 10 million population was registered to vote in the referendum, with figures indicating that 96% of those participated. While the turnout for the referendum was unexpectedly high, particularly in rural areas, this could be attributed to fear of intimidation with government accused of gross human rights violations in the months leading up to the referendum.
The ruling party, the National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CDDD-FDD/Conseil National pour la Défense de la Démocratie-Forces de Défense de la Démocratie), is accused of threatening and intimidating voters to secure a yes vote. The opposition has also accused the CDDD-FDD’s Imbonerakure youth wing, which the United Nations (UN) regards as a militia group, of inciting terror and, in May 2018, Human Rights Watch (HRW) accused Burundi’s security forces of widespread human rights abuses. Amid these allegations, main opposition leader Agathon Rwasa rejected the referendum results before the outcome was even announced, saying that it was neither free nor transparent and that the democratic process was a farce.
The National Council for Restoration of Arusha Agreement and Rule of Law (CNARED), an alliance of Burundi’s exiled opposition groups, has said that it believes the referendum could mean the end of the 2005 Arusha peace accord, which ended the country’s 13-year long civil war. With an estimated 1 200 killed in protests in Burundi since 2015 and over 400 000 Burundian refugees in exile, the region has already been severely affected with Rwanda hosting an estimated 174 000 refugees. The opposition’s rejection of the referendum results could see the security situation in the country deteriorate and an escalation in confrontation between government, the opposition, and protesters. With the region already heavily burdened, with its own capacity and infrastructure constraints, a regression could have widespread destabilising effects, while underscoring worrying trends to rule for life on the continent. This was well exemplified in 2017 when Rwandans voted in favour of a change in the constitution to extend President Paul Kagame’s power to 2034 and in May 2018 as Chad approved a constitution to extend President Idriss Déby’s rule to 2033. Similar moves look likely elsewhere with conflict fatigue thought to be encouraging many African nations to opt for stability over democracy with Uganda’s ruling party also seeking to extend President Yoweri Museveni’s rule term, due to end in 2021, to 2035.