(Bloomberg) -- Burundi holds a referendum Thursday on constitutional changes that would set the stage for another East African leader to rule for the next 16 years, amid warnings the vote may inflame a three-year political crisis that’s cost hundreds of lives.
A “yes” vote would potentially allow President Pierre Nkurunziza, described by his party as an “eternal visionary,” to remain in office until 2034. Having ruled the tiny landlocked nation since a civil war ended in 2005, he’s the latest leader in the region accused of trying to cement his hold on power.
Burundi is already facing sporadic violence, sparked by Nkurunziza’s bid for his current mandate in 2015. While some groups have been allowed to campaign for a “no” vote, most of the main opposition is either cowed or in exile and the media is muzzled.
“For the last five months the message from the government has been clear: dissenters will be punished,” said Lewis Mudge, a senior researcher at New York-based Human Rights Watch. “This mean that few Burundians will dare to speak out.”
In neighboring Rwanda, President Paul Kagame has ruled since 2000 and won an electoral landslide last year after a referendum altered term limits. In Uganda, Yoweri Museveni’s supporters in parliament had an upper-age limit for presidential candidates abolished, positioning the 73-year-old to extend his three-decade rule.
In Burundi, the attempt carries additional risks. Nkurunziza’s bid for another term three years ago -- which opponents said violated peace accords -- spurred initial protests that have to this day been followed by a crackdown and sporadic militant attacks.
The unrest has forced more than 400,000 from their homes, with a United Nations commission of inquiry accusing authorities of crimes including extrajudicial executions, torture and enforced disappearances. The government dismisses the allegations and has withdrawn from the International Criminal Court, which wants to investigate possible crimes against humanity in the country.
In the latest violence, 26 people were killed in a May 11 attack in the rural northwest that Security Minister Alain Guillaume Bunyoni blamed on an unidentified “terrorist group.” The government in December urged Burundians who’d fled to camps in countries including Tanzania and Rwanda to return.
UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has said Burundi’s opposition groups should take part in any decision to alter the constitution so as to avoid inflaming the crisis, Agence France-Presse reported in February, citing a report sent to the Security Council.
The main opposition coalition, the National Council for the Respect of the Arusha Agreement, or Cnared, said in April that if the referendum goes ahead it won’t participate in any further talks convened by East African countries to end the political standoff. The government has said it’s still committed to negotiations after the plebiscite and urged voters not to heed the call.
Coverage of the referendum, for which the electoral agency says more than 5 million people are registered, will be limited. Many Burundian journalists have fled, while authorities this month suspended the radio operations of the British Broadcasting Corp. and Voice of America, accusing them of unspecified violations of the country’s media laws and ethics.
Since the crisis began, “the repression of any form of dissent has become increasingly entrenched,” said Rachel Nicholson, a researcher at London-based Amnesty International.
The media suspensions and the jailing of a local human-rights activist for 32 years just before campaigning began are “a timely reminder of the deeply restrictive environment in which the vote will take place,” she said.
The proposed changes to more than 70 of the constitution’s 307 articles go beyond extending presidential terms to seven years from five. The creation of a new post of prime minister and the reduction of the majority needed to adopt legislation in parliament would, according to Nicholson, also strengthen the authority of the ruling National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy, known by its French acronym CNDD-FDD.
While the impact of the referendum on the crisis is hard to judge, “if the last three years are a gauge, we can expect the government to punish perceived enemies,” said Human Rights Watch’s Mudge. “In the long term, we are looking at the complete monopolization of political power by the CNDD-FDD.”
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