Burundi: repressive constitutional reform to give the president full powers

Press release
en fr

Paris – 15 May 2018. At the end of a one-sided campaign, where voters were registered by force and where promoting a “no” or abstention was brutally repressed, on 17 May the Burundians will be invited to give their opinion on a proposed change to the Constitution. The paper published today by FIDH and the ITEKA League shows that this reform is a direct threat to the balance achieved through the Arusha Agreement signed in August 2000 after several years of civil war. It hands much of the state’s authority to the clique of Pierre Nkurunziza, who could keep the presidency for another 14 years. It also protects the leaders of a regime suspected of being behind serious crimes for the last three years, who are now being threatened by the investigation opened by the International Criminal Court in October 2017.

In 2015, President Pierre Nkurunziza announced his intention to run for an – unconstitutional – third term and plunged Burundi into a state of instability and political violence that sent 430,000 people fleeing. Between April 2015 and 6 May 2018, the ITEKA League recorded 1,710 murders, 486 cases of forced disappearances, 558 victims of torture and 8,561 arbitrary arrests, the majority linked to the political crisis and repression by the regime.

Yet, on 12 December 2017, Pierre Nkurunziza announced that a referendum would be held to revise the Constitution, which would allow him to stay in power until 2034. Setting the stage for his one-sided campaign, he explicitly stated that “those opposing the referendum would be exposing themselves to serious consequences”. Many of his ministers and accomplices followed his example by launching a violent campaign of public threats and acts of intimidation quickly taken over throughout the country by local authorities, the members of the president’s party (the CNDD-FDD), security forces and the Imbonerakure militia.

This campaign was very unfair and was used as an additional repressive tool adding to the serious crimes that the authorities had been perpetrating for the last three years. Opponents suffered acts of reprisal for their participation in the “no” campaign, and dozens of them have been arrested, detained and beaten since mid-April. The Imbonerakure set up barricades to prevent activists from attending meetings. Law enforcement officers and local authorities tried to prevent opposition meetings. Lists were made of the names of people suspected of attending meetings organised by the opposition. The 430,000 Burundian refugees in the neighbouring countries were not allowed to participate in the referendum while, on the other hand, the government launched a campaign to forcibly register voters. And at least two people – Dismas Sinzinkayo and Simon Bizimana – were killed allegedly for refusing to register or to show that they had.

Besides the climate of severe repression overshadowing this campaign, the reform turned out to be particularly dangerous since it sought to destroy the last countervailing powers inscribed in the 2005 Constitution, which had already been largely stripped of any substance of their meaning by three years of government abuse and cyclical ethnic cleansing by the administration and the army. These countervailing powers stemmed from the Arusha Agreement and sought to promote national reconciliation, especially by assigning people from the country’s three main ethnic groups (Hutus, Tutsis and Twas) to the various branches of government (executive, legislative, judiciary) and to the army.

The new proposed Constitution, in particular, would allow the Senate within the next five years to change and actually abolish the current ethnic balance.

The new Constitution moreover would enhance the autocratic concentration of power in the hands of the president and thereby reduce the prerogatives of the government and the parliament. In the future, national policy would be set by the Head of the State, leaving the government with the role of simply implementing it.

The President would appoint the ministers without taking political representation of the various parties and ethnic groups into account. Lastly, any law which was not ratified by the President within 30 days of its adoption by the Parliament would become “null and void”. Breaking with the traditional separation of executive and legislative powers, the Head of State would have the right to approve, or not, the laws adopted by the deputies.

In the future, the president would be elected for a renewable 7-year term of office, instead of the current 5 years. This new provision would give Nkurunziza, who has been president since 2005, an additional 14 years in office. Staying in power would be made easier thanks to the potential changes in the Electoral Commission, since the President could change the composition and assign his closest allies to the Commission without having to worry about minority or opposition parties.

The changes being proposed also seek to ensure the constitutional protection of the perpetrators of the regime’s authoritarian abuses. For the National Intelligence Service (SNR) for instance, the legal provisions meant to regulate SNR activities would be virtually nullified. Yet, since 2015, our organisations have established SNR responsibility in multiple cases of executions, torture, forced disappearances and illegal detention in their premises.

Lastly, Burundians could no longer be extradited for serious crimes. This is an additional measure adopted by the authorities in an attempt to protect their leaders against proceedings that could be opened against them in States which have extraterritorial criminal jurisdiction, or by the International Criminal Court that opened an investigation on 25 October 2017.

Annex: Burundian refugees
Launching the viral campaign I Love / I Leave Burundi

Two years after the first viral campaign to create awareness among a public unfamiliar with the politics of Burundi [1], we are again working together to run a campaign that lends voice to Burundians who had to flee into exile three years ago.
More than 400,000 people have fled Burundi since 2015 to escape human rights violations, yet this crisis remains below the media radar and has not attracted much attention from the international community. In February 2018, the HCR Regional Refugee Coordinator, Catherine Wiesner, described the Burundian refugee camps as "the world’s least funded refugee response plan"[2], with only 21% of the requested aid funding actually secured. Since that time, the figure has dropped to 9%[3].
The campaign will unfold in two stages:
 From 7 to 15 May, a phony "Agency for the Promotion of Tourism in Burundi" will launch a series of soothing Tweets to add to a “I love Burundi” video depicting the country’s real tourist attractions, while at the same time ignoring its political situation.
 Starting today in the month of May, the slogan will be “I leave Burundi” which puts the focus on why so many hundreds of thousands of Burundians have had to leave their country.

[1] https://www.fidh.org/fr/regions/afrique/burundi/la-fidh-lance-une-campagne-choc-pour-alerter-sur-un-risque-de
[2] http://www.unhcr.org/fr/news/stories/2018/2/5a7dc0511/391-millions-dollars-necessaires-aider-refugies-burundais-tombes-loublinbsp.html
[3] http://www.rfi.fr/afrique/20180512-refugies-burundais-hcr-probleme-manque-fonds-aide


Maryna Chebat

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