Fearing bloodshed, Burundi faces vote on president’s power

BUJUMBURA, Burundi (AP) – Burundians vote today in a referendum that could keep the president in power for another 16 years and threatens to prolong a political crisis that has seen more than 1,000 people killed and hundreds of thousands fleeing to neighbouring countries.

Many in this East African nation do not see a positive outcome no matter the results of the vote, which President Pierre Nkurunziza’s government forced through despite widespread opposition and the concerns of the United States and others warning of continued bloodshed. The country descended into crisis in 2015 when Nkurunziza pursued a disputed third term.

Now Burundi’s five million voters are asked to approve a change to the constitution that would extend the length of the president’s term from five years to seven and would allow him to stand for two more terms. Nkurunziza has forcefully urged voters to support the referendum.

Tensions are even higher after unidentified attackers armed with machetes and guns carried out a massacre on Friday in the rural northwest near Congo, killing 26 people, many of them children. The government blamed a “terrorist group.”

While it is not clear whether the attack was linked to today’s referendum, it was “a very dangerous development,” United Nations human rights chief Zeid Ra’ad al Hussein said on Tuesday.

Burundians attend a ruling party rally to launch its campaign calling for a ‘Yes’ vote in the upcoming constitutional referendum, in Bugendana, Gitega province, Burundi. – AP

Zeid, who has called Burundi one of “the most prolific slaughterhouses of humans in recent times,” warned that “everyone will suffer” if Burundi explodes into violence during or after the vote.

Some in Burundi’s opposition, which has faced hate speech from officials including threats of drowning, say they have little choice but to fight back.

Boycotting the vote is risky following a presidential decree that criminalised calls to abstain from casting a ballot.

“The only available option now is to use guns and we are determined to use all means to realise our cause,” said Hussein Radjabu, who was a Nkurunziza ally before being jailed on treason-related charges. He later escaped from prison and fled the country.

The referendum is rigged in Nkurunziza’s favour, Radjabu told The Associated Press by phone.

Burundi’s government strongly denies allegations it targets its own people, saying the charges are malicious propaganda spread by exiles.

The international community, however, has long expressed alarm. An estimated 1,200 people have been killed since early 2015, and International Criminal Court judges last year authorised an investigation into allegations of state-sponsored crimes.

As today’s referendum approached, Human Rights Watch noted “widespread impunity” for authorities as they tried to swing the vote in the president’s favour, citing two recent deaths after beatings allegedly at the hands of state agents.