Burundians will on Thursday vote in a referendum on constitutional changes that would extend incumbent President, Pierre Nkurunziza’s rule to 2034.
The controversial referendum comes amid fears and warnings that the vote may lead to an upsurge of violence and heighten a three year political crisis that has left at least 1,200 people dead and thousands as refugees in neighbouring countries.
Burundi’s Electoral Commission put the number of registered voters at just over 4.7 million. Campaigns for and against the vote had been marred by a clampdown on dissenters according to human rights groups.
“We are concerned that it is taking place in a context that there are serious restrictions of freedom of expression,” said Amnesty International researcher, Rachel Nicholson.
The International Community has expressed concern that the referendum will spark renewed fighting in the East African nation which has witnessed a three year political crisis after President Nkurunziza’s controversial third term bid in 2015.
Over the weekend, 26 people were killed in the north west of the country by unknown people. The attacks have raised fears of reprisals against those opposed to the referendum.
Among the controversial proposals of the draft constitution is the extension of the presidential term from the current five years to seven years. It allows the president to serve two consecutive terms.
The draft Constitution also proposes the creation of the post of a prime minister and only one vice-president, whereas the 2005 Constitution provides for two vice-presidents.
The prime minister will be appointed from the ruling party, while the vice-president will come from a different party.
It will be passed if it is approved by over 50% of voters. A “Yes” vote would clear the way for Nkurunziza to run again in 2020 when his current term expires.
The opposition says this is a violation of the Arusha Peace agreement as it would infringe on national unity.
“We are much attached to this Arusha agreement because we have reached many results, stability and reconciliation in Burundi because of the Arusha agreement,” said, Burundi’s opposition politician Domitien Ndayizeye.
There are fears that the new laws would dismantle the country’s negotiated ethnic balance.
The current constitution sets quotas for parliament, the government and the army, with power shared between the two ethnic groups – the Hutu and Tutsis.
The quotas guarantee the Tutsi minority 40 – 50 % representation in different state bodies as part of the Arusha agreement.
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