Burundi’s cabinet backed a constitutional change allowing its president to stay in office until 2034, widening a political rift driving the country deeper into crisis.
Under existing laws, Burundian presidents are limited to two five-year terms.
Unrest since April 2015, when Pierre Nkurunziza announced he would stand for a third, has killed hundreds, left the economy moribund and forced about 400,000 people to seek safety in neighbouring countries.
UN rights investigators and independent activists accuse government forces of widespread violations including forced disappearances and of orchestrating a campaign of terror.
A senior government official told Reuters the cabinet adopted the draft legislation seeking to amend the constitution last Tuesday.
Nkurunziza, in office since 2005, won re-election in July 2015 in a ballot critics said violated the constitution and terms of an agreement ending a previous rebellion.
Nkurunziza’s backers said the country’s constitutional court cleared him to run again but some opponents took up arms and insecurity has plagued the country since.
Other African leaders have also tinkered with or defied their constitutions to extend their rule, including Uganda’s President Yoweri Museveni, Rwanda’s Paul Kagame and Democratic Republic of Congo’s Joseph Kabila.
Proposed amendments under the Burundian bill seek to abolish the two-term limit and lengthen presidential terms to seven years. Incumbents would be able to serve two consecutive terms of seven years each and also be eligible to seek re-election after an interregnum.
If the amendment is passed by parliament, “the current head of state can rule until 2034,” a source said.
A second official told Reuters government would hold a referendum on the draft legislation next year, but did not say when.
Opposition officials criticise the legislation which they say was initiated in secrecy and designed to entrench Nkurunziza in power.
“No one knew what was being done. It was done in total secrecy…we will always oppose it,” deputy president of the opposition FRODEBU party, Leonce Ngendakumana, told Reuters.
“The constitution should not be revised in a tense social climate.”