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Burundi votes tomorrow on controversial constitutional amendments. A lot is at stake.

Burundi soldiers and police in the Ruhagarika community, where more than 20 people were killed in an overnight attack last weekend. The country’s security minister called it the work of a “terrorist group” he did not identify. (AP)
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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.

How Burundi got here

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.

Under the Arusha Agreement’s two-term limit, Nkurunziza, elected by parliament in 2005 and a popular vote in 2010, could not run again. In 2014, the CNDD-FDD tried — but failed — to pass constitutional amendments that would have changed term limits and eliminated several power-sharing provisions. Nevertheless, Nkurunziza ran again for the presidency in April 2015. Burundi erupted with protests, which the government met with a brutal crackdown.

The CNDD-FDD argued that Nkurunziza was an eligible candidate, since in 2005 he had not been elected directly by the people. Burundi’s Constitutional Court ruled in May 2015 that Nkurunziza could run.

Splits within the CNDD-FDD culminated in a failed military coup led by Gen. Godefroid Niyombare, who had fought in the bush with the CNDD-FDD and later headed up the army and intelligence service. The government again cracked down, destroying radio stations, crushing protests by force and issuing arrest warrants for individuals they believed had supported the coup attempt. Exiled military and political leaders then formed several armed opposition groups.

Signs of renewed ethnic violence in Burundi

Since April 2015, nearly 400,000 Burundians have fled to neighboring countries. Many are fleeing harassment, intimidation and extortion by the Imbonerakure — the CNDD-FDD’s youth wing — as well as intense economic hardship.

Burundi’s situation now

The East African Community (EAC) stepped in to mediate between the government and exiled opposition, but EAC members’ differences about how to solve the crisis hampered those efforts.

At the same time, the government launched a Commission for Inter-Burundian Dialogue that undermined those negotiations with the exiled political elite. The commission’s October 2017 report called for changes that required constitutional amendments. Interestingly, many of these proposals were nearly identical to changes the CNDD-FDD introduced but failed to pass in 2014.

Here’s how to catch atrocities and human rights violations. (We’re looking at you, Burundi.)

That’s what Burundi will be voting on Thursday.

The proposed amendments would undermine the Burundi constitution’s power-sharing in three ways

First, the proposed amendments would change the executive dramatically, reducing the power of minority groups. Currently, Burundi has a president and two vice presidents, with distinct portfolios and from different ethnic groups and parties. These would be replaced by a stronger president; a prime minister appointed by, and accountable to, the president; and a ceremonial vice president of a different ethnicity from the president. If the president didn’t endorse laws passed by parliament within 30 days, they would be void. Presidential terms would last seven years. A two-term president could run again after seven years out of office.

Second, the proposed amendments would consolidate the CNDD-FDD’s control by limiting the currently mandated consultation and consensus-building in parliament and the cabinet. Parties that won at least 5 percent of the vote would no longer be guaranteed ministerial positions. Currently, parliament needs a two-thirds majority to pass bills; that would be reduced to a simple majority, watering down ethnic and political minorities’ voting power.

Finally, the amendments would require candidates who left a party to run as independents to wait one year and would restrict dual citizens from running for the presidency — both of which directly target some prominent opposition members and potential CNDD-FDD challengers.

While so far, the amendments don’t get rid of ethnic quotas for parliament, the police and the army, the Senate would review those five years after the new amendments were adopted.

Currently, both the police and the army must be 50 percent Hutu and 50 percent Tutsi — but ethnic parity would be lifted for the National Intelligence Service (SNR), which would then report directly to the president. Why might that be a problem? Since 2015, CNDD-FDD opponents have increasingly been silenced through extrajudicial executions, arbitrary detention and torture. Apparently the government has turned its intelligence services into a tool to neutralize political opponents. The International Criminal Court is investigating some of these allegations as potential crimes against humanity.

Certainly, Burundi has the right to revise its constitution. But many political opposition and civil society leaders have been in exile during this referendum campaign. Local officials have intimidated and members of the Imbonerakure have killed, beaten and harassed referendum opponents, according to Human Rights Watch.

The changes would further consolidate Nkurunziza’s executive power and the CNDD-FDD’s control — and look likely to win. While retaining quotas gives the impression that the Arusha spirit lives on, the ruling party is progressively dismantling it, reducing opportunities for peaceful political engagement. As in 2010-12, and in 2015-16, during this campaign season, the government has increasingly used violence against its opponents, and factions have taken up arms against the current regime. In this turbulent neighborhood, exclusion and exile have long fomented conflict, placing Burundi at risk of more violence in the months to come.

Yolande Bouka (@yolandebouka) is a postdoctoral fellow at the Sié Center for International Security and Diplomacy at the University of Denver, and the author of “Burundi: Between War and Negative Peace” (Springer Link, 2017). 

Sarah Jackson (@SJEastAfrica) is a practitioner-in-residence at Columbia Law School’s Human Rights Institute. She is writing in her personal capacity.