BY: KATIE DOBOSZ KENNEY
On Monday evening in Burundi, the ruling party’s Electoral Commission announced the first results from a referendum held on Thursday May 17, 2018, to change the constitutional amendment regarding presidential term limits for president Pierre Nkurunziza. The initial results reveal approximately 73% of participants voted in the affirmative, which will presumably allow for the passing of the amendment to extend presidential terms limits. Though voting on the day of was seemingly peacefully, the threat of intimidation and fear of retaliation were certainly behind the high percentage of affirmative votes.
Grassroots reporting recounted instances of intimidation and detention as several people were arrested for tearing ballots in half and encouraging others to vote against the referendum, including a 15 year old girl, not even eligible to vote, accused of saying “vote no” in front of a polling station in her town. Local people complained that the majority of polling station supervisors were from the ruling CNDD-FDD party; one woman told IWUCA, “we fear the lack of impartiality in this referendum. All the observers and political observers are from the same political party.” Many people voted despite never having seen the complete language of the referendum, which also included the dissolution of one of the two vice-presidential positions. Many people feared that not participating would been seen as boycotting the vote by the CNDD-FDD’s youth militia, the Imbonerakure. Human Rights Watch has confirmed at least 15 people were killed and 6 raped by the Imbonerakure in the months preceding the referendum.
Agathon Rwasa, head of the Amizero y’Abarundi Coalition, rejected the outcome even before the official numbers were announced, pointing to many of the same concerns from Burundians surrounding violent and coercive intimidation tactics. It is difficult to predict whether protests will break out following the results, but it would not be the first time that Burundians have taken up political action. In 2015, locals launched a campaign entitled Sindumuja, translating to I am not a slave, in response to Archbishop Simon Ntamwana’s comparison of a third Nkurunziza term to slavery. Since that time, the hashtag #sindumuja has become popular on Twitter as both a rallying cry by those opposed to Nkurunziza, and a derogatory slur by those in support of the CNDD-FDD.
Burundi is one of many nations facing the issue of presidents seeking to extend the limits of their terms. Many of Burundi’s regional neighbors including Rwanda, DRC, and Uganda are facing similar crises with strongmen attempting to consolidate their power by extending presidential term limits. Despite the issue occurring all over the continent, the African Union has done little to curb this abuse and overreach of power.
Burundi faces one of the worst humanitarian and displacement crises in the world. Most recently, it was ranked the third most under-reported humanitarian crisis in the global media in 2017, by CARE International’s report Suffering in Silence, published in January 2018. The world’s attention, tangible support and funding must turn to Burundi as they face further threats to their wellbeing amidst political maneuvering.
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.
Photo Credit: VoA News
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