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Burundi: Constitutional Referendum Planned

(Dec. 20, 2017) On December 12, 2017, Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza began promoting a campaign for a referendum on amending the country’s Constitution, to be held in early 2018. (AFP, Burundi President Launches Campaign to Extend Rule, GUARDIAN (Nigeria) (Dec. 13, 2017).) At the official launch of the amendment campaign, he stated that his purpose was to “explain the content of the constitution amendments to the people …  .” (Lorraine Josiane Manishatse, Constitutional Referendum Arouses Controversy, IWACU (Dec. 13, 2017).) He said that only articles “containing irregularities” would be amended and that “[a]rticles that form the basis of democracy, peace and [that are] about protecting government opponents, the rights and dignity of minorities and strengthening the power of state institutions will not be amended.” (Id.)

Background on Proposed Amendments

The Constitution itself was adopted in 2005 and was in part an outcome of the Arusha Agreement of 2000 that ended Burundi’s civil war. (Id.; Burundi’s Constitution of 2005, CONSTITUTE PROJECT; Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement for Burundi (Aug. 28, 2000), UNITED NATIONS PEACEMAKER.) The current plan for the revision of the Constitution was adopted by the government in October 2017. (Burundi President Launches Campaign to Extend Rule, supra.)

Among the proposed changes to be considered in the referendum are a revision of the current constitutional limit on presidential terms to two spans of five years each; this amendment would allow Nkurunziza to remain in office for two additional seven-year terms. (Id.; Constitution, art. 96.) The President is now serving an additional term following a controversial 2015 court decision. (Constance Johnson, Burundi: Court Permits Third Bid for Presidency, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (May 7, 2015).)

Another reported proposed amendment would change the provision on the Arusha Agreement, to indicate that the Constitution takes precedence over it. (Manishatse, supra.) The current document refers in its first few lines to “[r]eaffirming our faith in the ideal of peace, of reconciliation and of national unity following the Arusha Accord for Peace and Reconciliation in Burundi of August 28, 2000 and the Accords of Cease Fire; … .” (Constitution, Preamble.)

Criticism of the Referendum and the Amendments 

The process of having a referendum launched by the President has been criticized by Agathon Rwasa, First Deputy-President of the National Assembly. Rwasa has said that the Electoral Code requires the President to consult the offices of the two parts of the bicameral legislature, the National Assembly and the Senate, and that in this case no consultation took place. (Manishatse, supra.) The Code states that some referenda are optional and others compulsory. It goes on to state

The President of the Republic may, after consulting the two Vice-Presidents of the Republic, the Bureau of the National Assembly and the Senate Office, submit to referendum any draft constitutional, legislative, or other text, likely to have profound repercussions on the life and future of the nation or the nature or functioning of the institutions of the Republic.” (Loi No. 1/ 20 du 3 Juin 2014 Portant Revision de la Loi No. 1/22 du 18 Septembre 2009 Portant Code Electoral [Law No. 1/20 of June 3, 2014, on Revising Law No. 1/22 of September 18, 2009, on the Electoral Code], Burundi Presidency website.)

The Chairman of the opposition political group Hope of Burundians (Amizero y’Abarundi Coalition) also expressed the view that the referendum procedure had not been properly followed. (Burundi Constitution Review Irregular, Nkurunziza Critics Say, IWACU ONLINE (Dec. 13, 2017), Open Source Enterprise online subscription database, No. AFL2017121349756965.)

Gabriel Rufyin, President of the organization Watchdog Against Corruption and Embezzlement (Olucome), called the government’s referendum initiative a “suicidal path” and argued that the leaders are ignoring the problems of poverty and poor governance in the country. He said that the “political authority is giving priority to a group of individuals to the detriment of a whole population.” (Id.) Tatien Sibomana, another opponent of the President, stated that the time was not right for a constitutional amendment. He argued that “[a]s we still await the results of the ongoing process of inter-Burundian dialogue in Arusha, we cannot change the constitution since all Burundians have not been consulted.” (Manishatse, supra.)