Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza casts his ballot at a polling centre during the constitutional amendment referendum at School Ecofo de Buye in Mwumba commune in Ngozi province. Picture: Evrard Ngendakumana/Reuters
Bujumbura - Burundi votes today on its first referendum on constitutional change in 13 years, as the last one took place in March 2005 and was inspired by the Arusha Accords. The vote could allow President Pierre Nkuruziza (in power since 2005) to remain until 2034.

Around 5 million people registered to vote for the referendum and 2020 general elections, according to statistics given by the Independent Electoral Commission in Burundi. Nkurunziza signed a decree in March laying out the time frame for the campaign for the change of the constitution for the first two weeks of May.

But during this campaign opposition and rights group say that the “no vote” supporters were harassed and arrested and sometimes tortured by police officials, and the youth of the ruling party, known as Imbonerakure.

Dozens of opposition supporters, especially those who don’t favour the change of the constitution, have been arrested and jailed, like in Ngozi province (north), Cibitoke province (north-west), central Burundi and the eastern part of the country.

In Ngozi, province, an opposition activist was tortured to death, after he was arrested by the youth of the ruling party, beaten and to death - he was a follower of Agathon Rwasa, who was campaigning against the constitution change.

Inequality in campaign

Whereas Burundi's president has signed a decree to regulate the equity access to the media during the campaign, Burundi local Human rights activist, one Faustin Ndikumana, told the Independent Media that only “yes” supporters had enough time to explain their cause, while the others were not given enough time to talk about the reasons why people should vote "no" to the constitution change. “Yes vote” supporters were also favoured by the Government agencies as they were using state cars and means to campaign for the constitution change.

Attacks

As the referendum campaign was on, at least 26 people including 11 children were killed in an armed attack, that took place last week May 11th in Cibitoke province, north-west Burundi, as more than seven sustained strong injuries. Attackers are blamed to be “terrorists” and have crossed the borders from Congo to attack a village in Burundi, before they went back there, where they are being hunted by the Congolese army.

During this attack, a police officer, known to be involved in the killing of a Burundi National Television cameraman and his whole family in 2015, lost almost all his family members.

“They were in armed uniforms and carried weapons. We saw attackers before the attack and we thought they were soldiers” a survivor said. After the attack, assailants who went back to eastern Congo’s bushes, according to intelligence sources.

Handcuffed bodies were also seen in a river near Bujumbura according to local sources. Local Media feared to travel and see the tied up bodies that were floating on the Rusizi River, separating Burundi and RD Congo. In early May, the Burundi Communication Council banned BBC and VOA over the lack of respect for law and ethics, while other Media were warned over the association with the enemy. 

In May 2015, 5 private stations and television were destroyed by the ruling party followers, on the margins of a failed coup on May 13, 2015, that forced more than 100 reporters to exile, while 400 000 civilians fled the country since the crisis. 

Thousands also died and the EU, opposition and rights groups accused the ruling party officials of being behind the killings, urging the ICC to open investigations into the abuses.