A president who once banned the popular pastime of jogging now aims to rewrite the nation’s laws and rule the nation of Burundi until 2034.
A referendum is scheduled to take place this week that would give President Pierre Nkunrunziza two more terms of 7 years each.
President Nkurunziza, 54, has strong support from his party for a “Yes” vote in the referendum. Party loyalists call him the “Imboneza yamaho,” translated as “eternal supreme guide,” or “visionary leader.”
Meanwhile, a pro-government militia is methodically eliminating the opposition, unleashing what the U.N. has described as a “campaign of terror,” wielding frightening weapons of war including rape and murder, according to numerous rights activists.
The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) accuses the Burundi government of creating a “political and human rights crisis” starting in 2015. In its latest report, the rights group decried the near total impunity by government forces.
“Security forces and intelligence services—often collaborating with members of the ruling party’s youth league, known as the Imbonerakure—are responsible for numerous killings, disappearances, abductions, acts of torture, rapes, and arbitrary arrests,” wrote HRW. “Unknown assailants carry out grenade and other attacks, killing or injuring many people.”
Approximately a quarter of a million Burundians have fled the country and live in refugee camps in neighboring Tanzania, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.
Burundi’s government dismissed the charges as “malicious propaganda spread by exiles.” Last week, it suspended BBC broadcasts in the country for six months, accusing it of spreading ideas that discredit the president. Voice of America broadcasts were also suspended.
Government supporters argue that the referendum demonstrates independence from Western interference.
However Burundi’s Catholic bishops say “many citizens … live in fear, so much so that people do not dare to say what they think, for fear of reprisals.”
In addition to concerns raised by the U.N. Commission of Inquiry report in 2017, an investigation was opened by the International Criminal Court from which Burundi has now withdrawn.
Meanwhile, famous stars and humanitarians in the U.S. and Europe are gathering funds to aid needy Burundians caught in the conflict. Among these are Beyonce who pledged to build 80 wells for 120,000 women and children, and Gucci, whose global campaign for gender equality donated $1 million to the singer’s BeyGood4Burundi initiative.
On the referendum, critics expect ‘Yes’ to win, but fear it legally consolidates an “eternal president” and the return of a one-party state.