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Spotlight on Africa

Politically motivated violence ahead of Burundi's contentious referendum

Audio 10:39
A portrait of Nkurunziza seen on a banner during a rally of the ruling CNDD-FDD party during the referendum campaign, 14 May 2018.
A portrait of Nkurunziza seen on a banner during a rally of the ruling CNDD-FDD party during the referendum campaign, 14 May 2018. Photo: Stringer/AFP

Burundians go to the polls on 17 May for a controversial constitutional referendum to decide on changes that could extend the president’s term limits. The changes to the constitution could potentially enable President Pierre Nkurunziza to stay in power until 2034 with an additional two terms of seven years. Nkurunziza has already been in power since 2005 and his 2015 bid for a third term in office led to bloodshed. There were protests, an attempted coup d’etat and crackdown by security forces with an estimated 1,200 people were killed. The International Criminal Court said it was investigating state-sponsored crimes against humanity in the country, however the government became the first country to withdraw from the war crimes court. Ahead of the constitutional referendum, the EU warned that the vote will take place in a persistent climate of intimidation and repression. The country’s Catholic bishops also said they were opposed to the constitutional changes, saying it was not the appropriate time to make profound changes to the document. Furthermore, rights group Human Rights Watch said the campaign for the referendum has been marred by violence. Spotlight on Africa spoke to Jean-Regis Nduwimana, a media analyst from Lake Tanganyika University…


NOTE: This interview was produced on 6 May before an attack against a village in the north-west of the country that left 26 people dead.

Q&A: Jean-Regis Nduwimana

Have you heard any reports of political violence ahead of the referendum on 17 May?

Yes, there’s a lot of political violence in the country right now. Members of the FNL [National Forces of Liberation] of Agathon Rwasa, who’s the vice president of the parliament - they’re now the new target of Burundi’s security forces and the militiamen, the Imbonerakure. Because the FNL, they’re promoting the 'No' campaign and since they’re voting for 'No' – you become a target of Nkurunziza. Guys have been kidnapped - we can assume that they’re somewhere in a police station being tortured, we don’t know. But the new target are the FNL.

The FNL are traditionally opposed to the CNDD-FDD aren't they?

Yes, it is opposed, but remember that the FNL has two wings. There’s the FNL that works closely with the government. But there’s also the FNL that has former rebel, Agathon Rwasa, who is very well known in the FNL. Rwasa is the most powerful member of the FNL so people follow him and they vote as he recommends. That’s why members of his political party, his coalition, are targeted now.

There was some information that emerged suggesting that the police were now authorised to carry out arrests at night without having arrest warrants.

It’s a new law voted by parliament a couple of weeks ago and the police do that kind of search during the night. But people are worried, worried that they steal everything in the house. Now the police and even the militiamen have the right to search your phone. If you don’t unlock your phone, you will be arrested. So they search your phone, your laptop, everything. You have to open these kind of devices.

There was also information on social media that in some areas there were residents rising up against the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the ruling party.

It’s true, but the problem with this is trying to protest against militiamen, there’s a boomerang effect, you become a victim. If militiamen are mistreating people in the rural areas, yes, you can attack Imbonerakure, but the following day you will be arrested. Because remember militiamen are more powerful than the police. So if you do that you are likely to be arrested in the following days.

Following the attempted coup in 2015, there was a period where there were a number of attacks against security forces. These seem to have died down in the last year or so.

Yes it goes down because it seems like the rebel movement were not well organized. Even the opposition do not seem to have a common view of how to handle this issue. Whether politically or using armed groups. These armed groups were so divided that it gave room to Nkurunziza to tighten his security procedures. Even to strengthen the militiamen and loyalists within the police and the army. But still, armed groups are becoming more and more united, according to some sources. Maybe in the future they’ll be more powerful or be able to attack Nkurunziza.

Do you consider this referendum to be the effective end of the Arusha peace agreement?

Yes, it’s an effective end of the Arusha peace agreement because of this issue of term limits, this issue of power sharing. With this constitution Nkurunziza becomes more powerful than his ruling party, if not the government. This is contrary to the Arusha agreement which was Tutsi, Hutu and Twa – all the communities in the country have a sort of power-sharing, which is well-specified in the constitution that came from the Arusha agreement. All the power will be centred around the president.

It was both Tutsi and Hutus who protested against the third term for Nkurunziza. Do you see any divide between the Tutsi and Hutus having been exacerbated over the last three years?

No, not at all. The opposition now, you still have Hutu and Tutsi. Even if some were loyalists to Nkurunziza, who are Hutu, they’re now in the opposition. Inside the country, Hutu are not attacking Tutsi as we saw in the past. Tutsi are not attacking Hutu. But Nkurunziza is using this ethnic charged language to trigger ethnic-motivated violence or war. He didn’t succeed because Hutu are now oppressed, like the FNL, they’re dying the same way Tutsis are dying. You see on this issue, Nkurunziza is the big loser and people’s eyes are being opened with these things – Nkurunziza trying to use ethnically-charged language.

There are still a number of Burundian refugees who are residing in neighbouring countries. Do you think that in the lead-up, during and after the referendum that the humanitarian situation could worsen?

The humanitarian situation could worsen if there is a war or if there’s more political violence in the country, there will be more refugees in the neighbouring countries. But if there’s peace, if the regime falls, people may go back home. If there’s more political violence then the international community should come up with a strategy to deal with refugees especially those in Tanzania, Uganda, Congo and Rwanda.

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