On the recommendation of a national advisory board, Burundi’s government has organised a referendum for early 2018 on constitutional changes that would allow Nkurunziza to seek up to two more seven-year terms after his current mandate ends in 2020.
As he announced his party’s campaign in favour of the proposals at a rally of supporters on Tuesday, Nkurunziza threatened anyone who might plan to undermine the referendum.
“We take this opportunity to warn those who want to sabotage this project, whether by speech or actions,” Nkurunziza said. “It will be a red line.”
Political opponents merely see a newer and bolder attempt of Nkurunziza to remain in office beyond the democratic limits, two years after seeking and winning a controversial third presidential term.
“We do not need a lifetime president, but this is a man who just wants to instal a dictatorship in Burundi,” says Jérémie Minani, an opposition figure who ran against Nkurunziza in 2015 and now lives in exile in Brussels.
“He claims that it’s coming from the consultation made by the national commission but that commission is pretty much led by the regime,” Minani continues. “The purpose of the commission is obviously to help this man remain in power for his entire life.”
Turmoil in 2015
Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term in 2015 plunged the country into months of demonstrations, police crackdowns, attacks, arrests and exiles of opposition figures.
As many as 2,000 people are estimated to have died in the turmoil and the International Criminal Court has begun looking into alleged crimes.
If it does go ahead, the referendum would happen in an environment hostile to United Nations and other external observers as well as to any possible dissent.
“If you take all the signs of not just current Burundi but also what’s happened since the uprising back in 2015, it does not look like there will be conditions for a free and fair referendum,” says Alex Fielding, a Stockholm-based security analyst on African affairs with risk consultancy 4C Strategies.
On the one hand, the new moves could stoke new discontent that would renew the violence of recent years.
“Millions of Burundians will not accept a lifetime presidency,” Minani says. “In the coming months or even weeks, we’re going to start seeing people stand up and say no.”
But on the other hand, the government crackdown of the past two years has also changed Burundi’s political landscape, prompting Minani and others to flee abroad.
“There is no more opposition really active in the country,” says Florent Geel, Africa director of the International Federation for Human Rights.
“The level of the control of the ruling party on all sectors of society seems to be such that we can speak about total control of the state by the ruling party,” he continues. “I think it will be just a formality for the President Nkurunziza to organise this referendum and change the constitution.”
The government’s response to the opposition in 2015 has also changed Burundi’s security landscape, making widespread popular resistance less likely than more isolated but more radical forms of dissent.
“The climate of fear and suppression is such that I wouldn’t foresee large-scale public protests, like we saw in 2015,” says Alex Fielding.
“He has so changed the security dynamic since then and he has so pushed down the opposition and cracked down in a very violent way, that it would be more guerrilla violence, grenade attacks and attacks on other regime figures, rather than a large-scale public uprising that we have seen in the past.”