Burundi approves new constitution


Voters in Burundi overwhelmingly approved a new constitution, the electoral commission said, ushering in changes that could let the president stay in power to 2034.

An opposition coalition rejected the result of last week’s referendum while the United States said the process was marred by voter intimidation.

The commission reported 73% voted in favour of amendments extending the presidential term from five to seven years and allowing President Pierre Nkurunziza to seek two more terms, beginning in 2020.

Commission chairman Pierre Claver Ndayicariye told a news conference 96% of 4.7 million registered voters cast ballots last Thursday.

Opposition leaders say the changes to the constitution will allow Nkurunziza — whose party gave him the title of Supreme Eternal Guide this year — to be above the law.

Evariste Ngayimpenda, a top official of the Amizero y’Abarundi opposition coalition, denounced “a process tainted with many incidents including arrests, imprisonments and killings”.
“We reject these results and will file a complaint because the process was marred by irregularities, even during counting of votes,” he said.

Opposition campaign workers were terrorised and refused access to polling stations, he added.

Rights groups said campaigning and the vote itself took place in a climate of fear and intimidation. Government denied the vote would be anything but free and fair.

In Washington, the US State Department said government allowed vigorous campaigning by the opposition during the designated two-week campaign period. “Numerous cases of harassment and repression of referendum opponents in months preceding the vote contributed to a climate of fear and intimidation,” spokeswoman Heather Nauert said.

She condemned Burundi’s suspension of broadcasts by the BBC and Voice of America two weeks before the referendum.
“This decision along with other media restrictions, arbitrary arrests and harsh sentences for human rights defenders signals continuing limitations on civic and political space in Burundi,” Nauert said.

Burundi ranks 159th out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index compiled by the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.

Nkurunziza (54) is a former rebel leader who came to power in 2005 at the end of a long civil war in which 300,000 died. The East African country has broadly the same ethnic make-up as neighbouring Rwanda, where 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu extremists in the 1994 genocide.

Nkurunziza was due to step down in 2015 but early that year announced he was seeking a third term, triggering deadly clashes with his opponents and a political and security crisis that has gripped the country since.