Burundians went to the polls Thursday to vote in a contentious referendum on term limits that could see its recently declared ‘supreme eternal leader’ Pierre Nkurunziza stay in power until 2034.
Ahead of the referendum, the government banned three international broadcasters, including the BBC, and many local opponents of the referendum have been arrested or fled abroad.
“I took the time to read the proposed revision to the constitution,” one voter, 42-year-old Nestor Bigabo, told dpa.
“It aims to keep President Nkurunziza in power for life … Me, I’m voting ‘No’.”
Rights groups, as well as the U.S. State Department, have denounced an atmosphere of intimidation in the lead-up to the vote and the country’s divided opposition has called for people to vote “No” or boycott the referendum entirely.
A dpa reporter on the ground said there was a large military presence in the capital Thursday, and that on Wednesday night tanks had been patrolling the streets.
The country’s current constitution allows leaders to serve two five-year terms, but Nkurunziza, a former sports teacher and guerrilla leader from the Hutu ethnic majority, wants to amend that to seven years.
His term finishes in 2020, and if he ran again under a changed constitution he could be in power until 2034.
Moves by Nkurunziza, 54, to extend his rule have brought violence before.
When he secured a third term in office in 2015, contrary to the provisions of the constitution, it triggered a violent crisis that caused hundreds of thousands of people to flee their homes.
NAN reports that opposition politicians and rights groups have cited numerous examples of repression, from arrests of dissidents, to the breaking up of “no” rallies, to death threats issued by the Imbonerakure, the youth wing of Nkurunziza’s ruling CNDD-FDD.
In a sign of the poisonous political atmosphere, the party’s secretary general told a rally in the capital, Bujumbura, this week that those who voted against the proposed changes to the constitution were “enemies of the nation”.
Nkurunziza has ruled the landlocked nation, one of the world’s poorest, since the end in 2005 of a civil war in which 300,000 people were killed.
The government has denied allegations of repression and says the vote will be free and fair. A ruling party member who urged government supporters to throw opponents into a lake was jailed last month.
Nonetheless, it is highly likely voters will approve constitutional amendments that would let Nkurunziza – who was recently granted the title “visionary” by his party – run for two more seven-year terms from 2020.
His opponents said he was already ineligible to run in 2015.
Much of the opposition’s concern centres on the Imbonerakure, whose name means “those who see from far” in Kirundi, the predominant language.
The group was implicated in ethnic violence in 2015.(dpa/NAN)