Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza has intensified his brutal campaign to stay in power by stifling international news reporting of his government’s repressive actions, events ahead of his controversial referendum to extend presidential term limits.
The referendum is scheduled for 17 May 2018
The government’s banning of respected global news broadcasters the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) and the Voice of America (VOA) on 4 May has raised concerns about its plans to restrict coverage of human right violations ahead of, during and after the vote.
The state-controlled National Communications’ Council has accused the BBC of “violating press laws” and “unprofessional conduct,” claiming the remarks of a Burundian, interviewed by the broadcaster in March, were inappropriate and damaged the president’s reputation. It said the VOA was suspended for broadcasting on a frequency banned by the regulatory body.
Until their banning, the BBC and VOA were among the few independent media outlets still operating from within Burundi (even though their coverage was restricted to specific locations), since the country was plunged into a political and humanitarian crisis by Nkurunziza’s announcement indicating in 2015 that he would run for a third term — in violation of the constitution and the Arusha Peace Accord that ended the 12-year civil war in 2005.
Since 2015, almost all human rights defenders in Burundi have fled the country following killings and assassination attempts of activists. Journalists and thousands of citizens were forced into exile as the government targeted perceived opponents of Nkurunziza’s campaign to stay in power. This campaign’s tactics – violence, intimidation and harassment – has sparked a national humanitarian crisis.
In the past three years, more than 400, 000 Burundians have fled the country while thousands have been killed or simply disappeared. And the government has effectively silenced independent media in Burundi. These attacks on critical voices and on freedom of expression, association and assembly have completely closed spaces for civil society and political participation in Burundi, as reported by CIVICUS Monitor, an online tool that tracks threats to civil society globally. The sentencing of human rights defender Germain Rukuki to a staggering 32 years in prison on trumped up charges of “participating in an insurrection movement” by a Burundian court in late April shows the lengths the government has gone to, since 2015, to silence independent voices and those who report on human rights violations.
This prosecution and the disappearance, killing and attempted assassinations of other human rights defenders and civil society representatives that preceded it, means the space for civil society to operate will remain closed, at least for the foreseeable future. This is because any reporting on human rights violations and civil society attempts to hold government accountable will be met with reprisals from the state.
Nkurunziza extended the mandate the Commission nationale électorale indépendante (the independent electoral commission) that will manage the referendum. Constitutional changes include amendments increasing presidential terms from five to seven years and limiting them to two terms. Political parties and individuals were supposed to launch official campaigns for a “yes” or “no” vote on 1 May, even though the president’s Conseil national pour la défense de la démocratie–Forces de défense de la démocratie (National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of Democracy—CNDD-FDD) started campaigning months before.
This poll is being organised in a climate of fear, intimidation and violence orchestrated by national authorities, local government officials, the police and members of the ruling party’s youth wing, the Imbonerakure. Nkurunziza has reportedly warned that anyone attempting to “sabotage” the referendum would be crossing a “red line.” A ruling party senior member recently told supporters that, “opponents of the referendum should be thrown into Lake Tanganyika so they can be fed to the fish.”[[i]] Other government officials have publicly vowed to punish Burundians opposing the referendum and that “no” vote campaigners should be arrested because their actions are regarded as rebellious of the president’s orders. The police and ruling party youth wing continue to kill, intimidate, physically assault and detain perceived opponents or those they suspect will vote “no”.
In some instances the Imbonerakure has erected checkpoints and targeted those who fail to produce proof they have registered to vote. It is clear that in this hostile environment of violence and intimidation, the government’s objective will be achieved – Burundi will announce to the world that its citizens agreed to amend the constitution. Even calls by the political opposition including the Forces nationales de libération and a coalition of Burundian opposition in exile (Conseil national pour le respect de l’Accord d’Arusha pour la réconciliation et la paix au Burundi) to vote “no”, will not be enough to prevent this outcome.
Implications for democracy in Burundi and the Great Lakes region
Ideally, a referendum is supposed to provide an opportunity for citizens to vote on a particular proposal, policy or set of reforms. In Burundi, this process has been shrouded in controversy from the outset and used to advance the interest of the president after his failed attempt to amend the constitution in 2014—CNDD-FDD did not command the required majority in parliament to amend the constitution—and after he was only able to win elections the following year following a controversial court ruling. A committee set up by Nkurunziza in May 2017 to draft the constitutional amendments excluded Burundians from the process. The amendments remove key provisions of the Arusha Accord [[ii]], which forms the basis for the current constitution and ended the civil war in 2000. Political opposition members have declared the referendum a “death warrant” for the Arusha Accord.
The amendments also include changes in the procedures used to adopt bills in parliament – from a two-thirds majority to a simple majority — and replaces the two vice-presidential positions with one vice president and a prime minister. Burundi has employed two vice presidents – the first vice president mandated to focus on civil and political affairs and the second economic and social affairs — who were meant to be from different ethnic groups, with one of them coming from the political opposition.
These changes are all intended to consolidate Nkurunziza’s position, paving the way for him to contest elections in 2020 and [theoretically] extend his stay until 2034.
The government’s silencing of the BBC and VOA in Burundi is part of its strategy to silence the media, target human rights organisations, capture the judiciary, withdraw from the International Criminal Court (ICC) and refuse to participate in United Nations human rights processes in an attempt to limit reporting of atrocities and human rights violations and prevented perpetrators from being held to account.
President Nkurunziza is following the lead of neighbouring presidents who changed their constitutions to stay in power beyond what is allowed. In 2015, Rwandans voted in a controversial referendum, which adopted constitutional changes, paving the way for President Paul Kagame to [potentially] extend his stay in office until 2034. In Uganda, parliament has voted in favour of lifting constitutionally-prescribed presidential age limits making long-time President Yoweri Museveni eligible to contest the next scheduled elections in 2021 and potentially extend his reign.
Until this current crisis erupted three years ago, Burundi had one of the most active environments for private media in the Great Lakes region and boasted of an active civil society. But any hopes for a democratic transition, nursed by Burundians between 2005 and 2015, will be dashed when the referendum is held on 17 May 2018.
Across the border in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Congolese are facing similar challenges. President Joseph Kabila’s constitutionally mandated term in office ended two years ago but his government has failed to hold elections, precipitating a deepening political and human rights crisis.
While elections are planned for December 2018, Congolese civil society and citizens have expressed concerns over the legitimacy of another run for office by President Kabila and the government has used violence to repress peaceful protests and calls for a peaceful political transition.
All these constitutional amendments by incumbents in the Great Lakes region happen under the watchful eye of the African Union (AU) and in clear violation of the African Charter on Human and People’s Rights. In fact, in Burundi’s case, the AU has sent mixed signals, which have encouraged Nkurunziza to cling to power. In January this year, it condemned the ICC’s decision to open an investigation in Burundi, calling it “prejudicial to the peace process under the East African Community” and in violation of Burundi’s sovereignty, saying the move could potentially destabilise the country. Yet, the human rights violations that the ICC wants to investigate have had a major destabilising effect on Burundi for years now. While the voices of citizens in Burundi have been stifled and violence used to achieve political objectives, the East African Community and the AU hold the key to ending the violence and trigger reforms.
* David Kode leads Advocacy and Campaigns for global civil society alliance, CIVICUS.
[i] The official was later one sentenced to three years in jail for hate speech and inciting the public to commit crimes. http://www.iwacu-burundi.org/englishnews/melchiade-nzopfabarushe-sentenced-to-three-years-in-prison-over-hate-speech-accusation/ accessed 15 May 2018.
[ii] Proposed constitution for the 17 May 2018 referendum: https://www.ceniburundi.bi/IMG/pdf/projet_de_constitution_de_2018.pdf accessed 15 May 2018