Millions of voters in Burundi will go to the polls this week in a referendum that could allow president Pierre Nkurunziza to stay in power until 2034. After a campaign marked by allegations of widespread human rights abuses and hate speech, members of Burundi’s divided and weakened opposition see little chance of any serious resistance to Nkurunziza’s efforts to secure his future at the head of the impoverished state. Burundians are being asked to vote yes or no to a proposal to extend the president’s term from five years to seven, which would allow Nkurunziza, who has been in power since 2005, to rule for another 14 years when his term expires in 2020. Tensions have been running high in Burundi for months amid a wave of alleged detentions and killings of the government’s perceived opponents. At least 26 people were killed and seven others wounded in an attack in the north-western province of Cibitoke on Friday, though it is unclear if the massacre was politically motivated.
Burundi’s Catholic bishops have said that “many citizens … live in fear, so much so that people do not dare to say what they think, for fear of reprisals”, while the EU and the US have denounced intimidation, repression, violence and harassment of opposition supporters.
Human Rights Watch has criticised “widespread impunity” for authorities and their allies, including the ruling party’s youth wing, as they try to swing the vote in the president’s favour. Two men recently died after beatings allegedly at the hands of state agents, the rights group said.
“People are intimidated, arrested, disappeared and even assassinated. But what is important is not who wins the vote, but the determination of the people to defend the constitution despite the repression. That’s the important result,” said Anschaire Nikoyagize, of the banned Ligue Iteka, a human rights NGO.