President Pierre Nkurunziza has cracked down on opposition in seeking to remain in office
Burundi vote to extend leader's rule risks bloodshed
Millions of Burundians will vote in a divisive referendum on Thursday that could keep President Pierre Nkurunziza in power until 2034, following a blood-soaked campaign.
Amid reports of rampant voter intimidation and the murder and imprisonment of political opponents, the poll has echoes of the small east African country’s violent past.
Last Friday, 26 people were killed and seven wounded in an attack on the north-west province of Cibitoke.
“Muzzling of the opposition and human rights abuses have been so assiduous that there is no doubt the referendum will pass,” said Indigo Ellis, Africa analyst at Verisk Maplecroft.
Last week, Mr Nkurunziza’s ruling CNDD-FDD party banned the BBC and Voice of America from broadcasting, citing their attempts to discredit the president. Today, only the Catholic Church is vocal in its disapproval within the country.
As a deep paranoia has taken hold within the regime, all opposition has been crushed. The jailing last month of human rights activist Germain Rukuki for 32 years on charges of rebellion sparked international outrage.
Mr Nkurunziza, 54, a former Hutu rebel leader, has ruled Burundi since 2005, when its brutal 12-year Hutu-Tutsi civil war came to an end, leaving 300,000 dead.
Known by his party as “eternal supreme leader”, his support is strongest among rural voters, although intimidation makes it hard to quantify. As urban middle class Burundians have left, opposition support has dwindled.
Small and landlocked, Burundi is among the world’s poorest countries, heavily dependent on international aid.
Analysts fear constitutional changes – which will also modify ethnic Hutu-Tutsi quotas in government posts – will obliterate the Arusha Accords, which ended the civil war. The opposition in exile, CNARED, has warned of a violent response.
As a result, Burundi could be on the brink of a bloodbath.
“The ethnic card remains really effective,” said Ben Shepherd, Great Lakes analyst at Chatham House. “It is one that members of the regime reach for.”
Violence has simmered since 2015, when Mr Nukurunziza grasped for a third-term, sparking mass protests in the capital, Bujumbura, and an ill-fated coup attempt.
More than 1,200 civilians have been killed since, while 400,000 people have fled to neighbouring countries.
In advance of today’s referendum, the ruling party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure, has engaged in a violent rampage.
It has worrying implications for democracy in the region. “Burundi will once again become an explicitly one-party state,” predicted Ms Ellis.
In recent years the leaders of Uganda, Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the Congo have used similar strategies to cement their political control. “This is a marker on the road to authoritarianism,” said Mr Shepherd.