Fear casts shadow over Burundi vote on extending president’s rule

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BUJUMBURA (Reuters) – Burundians stood in long lines
on Thursday to vote in a referendum that could let President
Pierre Nkurunziza stay in power to 2034, deepening fears of
political repression and ethnic conflict in the heart of
Africa’s Great Lakes.

Nearly half a million people have fled since Nkurunziza, a
54-year-old former sports teacher and ethnic Hutu guerrilla
leader, initially prolonged his decade in charge by running for
a disputed third term in 2015.

He first came to power in 2005 at the end of a long civil
war in which 300,000 died.

The landlocked East African country has broadly the same
ethnic make-up as neighbouring Rwanda, where 800,000 Tutsis and
moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu extremists in a 1994
genocide.

The referendum asks voters to say “yes” or “no” to
constitutional amendments that would allow Nkurunziza to seek
two more seven-year terms beginning in 2020.

Nkurunziza, a fitness and football enthusiast, expressed
happiness at the turnout, urging voters to go to the polls early
so the result could be declared early.

“We take this opportunity to call on all people of voting
age to do their civic duty and present themselves at polling
stations as soon as possible, so that this exercise can be
concluded,” he told reporters after casting his ballot in his
home village of Ngozi.

The FNL party, which is part of the main opposition
coalition, said the vote was marred by “a lot of
irregularities”, including the deployment of ruling party
CNDD-FDD agents who accompanied voters into the voting booth.

“The vote is simply flawed and tailored to the interest of
the CNDD-FDD,” FNL said in a statement issued after the polls
closed. There was no immediate comment from the ruling party.

Armoured vehicles and police patrolled neighbourhoods of the
capital, Bujumbura, on Wednesday evening. Most people questioned
by Reuters said they did not understand the constitutional
changes and were only voting out of fear.

A 50-year-old man, who did not want to be identified to
avoid being targeted for retribution, said turnout was high “not
because of good will but because of fear”.

“There has been intimidation – whoever doesn’t go to vote is
going against the government’s will,” the man said.

 

BALLOT CRITICISED

Human rights groups and the opposition Front for Democracy
in Burundi criticised the run up to the ballot, which the U.S.
State Department earlier this month said could hurt Burundi’s
institutions.

The BBC and Voice of America have been banned and accused of
violating broadcasting regulations – accusations they deny –
leaving Burundi’s 10 million people largely reliant on state-run
media controlled by Nkurunziza’s allies for information on the
poll.

The government has denied the vote will be anything but free
and fair.

“I do not know what ‘yes’ or ‘no’ means since I did not see
or read that new constitution,” a 45-year old woman told Reuters
after she cast her vote in the capital Bujumbura. She requested
anonymity for safety reasons.

Some 430,000 refugees – many opponents of the president
-have fled since the 2015 elections. Most have fled to Tanzania
and Rwanda.

The country still suffers bouts of political violence – at
least 26 people were killed in an attack in a rural province
this month.

In the run-up to the vote, opposition politicians and rights
groups have also reported arrests of dissidents, the breaking up
of “no” rallies and death threats issued by the Imbonerakure,
the youth wing of Nkurunziza’s ruling CNDD-FDD.

Interior ministry official Therence Ntahiraja said such
reports were “a blatant lie”.

Burundi is not the only African country whose leaders have
amended the rules to prolong their stay in power.

Rwandan President Paul Kagame secured a change to the
constitution that could allow him to remain in office until
2034. Uganda’s long-time ruler, Yoweri Museveni, has removed
presidential age-limits.
(Writing by Elias Biryabarema
Editing by Ed Cropley and Jon Boyle)