Burundi’s Nkurunziza’s bid to stay in power could prove problematic

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Burundi will hold a referendum on May 17 on changes to the constitution which could allow incumbent President Pierre Nkurunziza to stay in power until 2034.

Burundi’s UN ambassador confirmed on Sunday that Nkurunziza had signed the decree allowing the changes to the constitution.

However, there are fears that the move could lead to more unrest in the East African country which saw deadly political violence after the president’s disputed decision in 2015 to seek a third term.

“The proposed changes would weaken the representation of minority groups in parliament and further threaten the Arusha peace deal that ended the 1993-2005 Burundian civil war,” said Ndubuisi Christian Ani, a peace and security researcher at the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) in Pretoria.

Minority representation would be threatened by replacing the two-thirds majority required to pass legislation with a simple majority.

“The amendment process has been marred by inadequate consultation and an absence of political freedom,” said Ani.

This is the second time that Nkurunziza has attempted to change Burundi’s constitution after he failed in 2014.

He subsequently went on to win the 2015 elections based on a controversial court ruling which secured him a third term in office but plunged the country into political turmoil – undermining the response of the international community.

Ani, however, said that the situation presented the African Union (AU) with the perfect opportunity to take a firm stand on the crisis, with Burundi’s tenure on the AU Peace and Security Council (PSC) ending this month.

The AU has called for consensus among all stakeholders on the proposed constitutional reforms in Burundi but without success and the continental organisation’s unclear stand on constitutional reviews in general has exacerbated matters.

“While the AU has called for adherence to the Arusha peace deal and broader consensus, it has not spoken out about the implications of the review process on the African Charter,” said the ISS researcher.

Nevertheless, the AU still had the tools at its disposal to encourage democratic changes of government, added Ani.

Article 23.5 of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance prohibits “any amendment or revision of the constitution or legal instruments, which is an infringement on the principles of democratic change of government”.

“Burundi has signed but not ratified the charter, and so isn’t legally bound by it. By signing, however, Burundi is required to refrain from acts that undermine the charter’s purpose,” said Ani.

Burundi is also party to several AU declarations, as well as the protocol establishing the PSC, which calls for sanctions in cases of unconstitutional changes of government.

The charter mandates the AU Commission to “evaluate compliance by States Parties” on matters relating to democracy, elections and governance.

“With Burundi out of the PSC, the AU can deliver on its obligation to defend human rights and democracy in the country,”said Ani,

“This should include a concerted effort to impose targeted sanctions ‘against all the Burundian stakeholders whose actions and statements contribute to the perpetuation of violence and impede the search for a solution’, as agreed by the PSC in 2015.

The PSC should also use its mandate under the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance to take a firm stand on the ongoing constitutional review.

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