Burundi soldiers and police officers in the Ruhagarika community, where more than 20 people were killed in an overnight attack last weekend. The country’s security minister called it the work of a “terrorist group” he did not identify. (AP)
On Thursday, Burundi will hold a referendum to revise its constitution. The current constitution, adopted in 2005, grew from the 2000 Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement, which helped end Burundi’s civil war by establishing one of Africa’s most inclusive political arrangements. The proposed amendments threaten to dismantle the Arusha Agreement without a broad national debate — and could lead to renewed instability.
How Burundi got here
During Burundi’s civil war, which lasted from 1993 to 2005, rebels from the Hutu majority battled the ruling minority Tutsi army. The war started after Tutsi soldiers assassinated Melchior Ndadaye — the country’s first democratically elected president and first Hutu president. Leaders from countries in the region, including Tanzania, South Africa, Kenya and Uganda, and international organizations such as the African Union, the European Union and the United Nations, worked for two years with Burundian political and armed actors to negotiate the Arusha Agreement.
Burundi’s constitution is “consociational.” That means it includes mandated power-sharing between Hutus and Tutsis, checks and balances, ethnic government quotas, ethnic parity in the military, and consensus-building among political groups. It ensures that the Hutu majority has a stake in government, while protecting the Tutsi minority from majoritarian rule, giving it more government power than the group’s numbers might suggest.
One of the leading Hutu rebel groups — the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) — was not involved in the Arusha negotiations. After that agreement was concluded, the CNDD-FDD did sign a cease-fire and power-sharing agreement with the Burundian transitional government and accepted the 2005 constitution. With Pierre Nkurunziza as its presidential candidate, the CNDD-FDD won that year’s legislative, local and presidential elections and has been the ruling party ever since.
But the CNDD-FDD leadership has expressed its contempt for the Arusha-inspired political arrangement, particularly the Tutsi minority’s overrepresentation.
Under the Arusha Agreement’s two-term limit, Nkurunziza, elected by parliament in 2005 and a popular vote in 2010, could not run again. In 2014, the CNDD-FDD tried — but failed — to pass constitutional amendments that would have changed term limits and eliminated several power-sharing provisions. Nevertheless, Nkurunziza ran again for the presidency in April 2015. Burundi erupted with protests, which the government met with a brutal crackdown.
The CNDD-FDD argued that Nkurunziza was an eligible candidate, since in 2005 he had not been elected directly by the people. Burundi’s Constitutional Court ruled in May 2015 that Nkurunziza could run.
Splits within the CNDD-FDD culminated in a failed military coup led by Gen. Godefroid Niyombare, who had fought in the bush with the CNDD-FDD and later headed up the army and intelligence service. The government again cracked down, destroying radio stations, crushing protests by force and issuing arrest warrants for individuals they believed had supported the coup attempt. Exiled military and political leaders then formed several armed opposition groups.
Since April 2015, nearly 400,000 Burundians have fled to neighboring countries. Many are fleeing harassment, intimidation and extortion by the Imbonerakure — the CNDD-FDD’s youth wing — as well as intense economic hardship.
Burundi’s situation now
The East African Community (EAC) stepped in to mediate between the government and exiled opposition, but EAC members’ differences about how to solve the crisis hampered those efforts.
At the same time, the government launched a Commission for Inter-Burundian Dialogue that undermined those negotiations with the exiled political elite. The commission’s October 2017 report called for changes that required constitutional amendments. Interestingly, many of these proposals were nearly identical to changes the CNDD-FDD introduced but failed to pass in 2014.
That’s what Burundi will be voting on Thursday.
The proposed amendments would undermine the Burundi constitution’s power-sharing in three ways.
First, the proposed amendments would change the executive dramatically, reducing the power of minority groups. Currently, Burundi has a president and two vice presidents, with distinct portfolios and from different ethnic groups and parties. These would be replaced…
Authored by Janine Maureen