On Thursday, Burundi will hold a referendum to revise its constitution. The current constitution, adopted in 2005, grew from the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, which helped end Burundi’s civil war by establishing one of Africa’s most inclusive political arrangements. The proposed amendments threaten to dismantle the Arusha Agreement without a broad national debate — and could lead to renewed instability. During Burundi’s civil war, which lasted from 1993 to 2005, rebels from the Hutu majority battled the ruling minority Tutsi army. The war started after Tutsi soldiers assassinated Melchior Ndadaye — the country’s first democratically elected president and first Hutu president. Leaders from countries in the region, including Tanzania, South Africa, Kenya and Uganda, and international organizations such as the African Union, the European Union and the United Nations, worked for two years with Burundian political and armed actors to negotiate the Arusha Agreement.
Burundi’s constitution is “consociational.” That means it includes mandated power-sharing between Hutus and Tutsis, checks and balances, ethnic government quotas, ethnic parity in the military, and consensus-building among political groups. It ensures that the Hutu majority has a stake in government, while protecting the Tutsi minority from majoritarian rule, giving it more government power than the group’s numbers might suggest.
One of the leading Hutu rebel groups — the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) — was not involved in the Arusha negotiations. After that agreement was concluded, the CNDD-FDD did sign a cease-fire and power-sharing agreement with the Burundian transitional government and accepted the 2005 constitution. With Pierre Nkurunziza as its presidential candidate, the CNDD-FDD won that year’s legislative, local and presidential elections and has been the ruling party ever since.
But the CNDD-FDD leadership has expressed its contempt for the Arusha-inspired political arrangement, particularly the Tutsi minority’s overrepresentation.