NEWS
22/05/2018 16:38 SAST | Updated 22/05/2018 16:43 SAST

Burundi Approves New Constitution Extending Presidential Term Limit

Opposition leaders say the changes to the constitution place Nkurunziza – whose party gave him the title "Supreme Eternal Guide" this year – above the law.

Evrard Ngendakumana / Reuters

Voters in Burundi have overwhelmingly approved a new constitution, the electoral commission said on Monday, ushering in changes that could let the president stay in power to 2034.

An opposition coalition rejected the result of last week's referendum, while the United States claimed the process had been marred by voter intimidation.

The commission reported that 73 percent had voted in favour of amendments extending the presidential term from five to seven years and allowing the president, Pierre Nkurunziza, to seek two more terms, beginning in 2020.

The process was marred by lots of irregularities, even during the counting of the votes.Burundian opposition party official Evariste Ngayimpenda

Commission chairperson Pierre Claver Ndayicariye told a news conference that 96 percent of the 4.7-million registered voters cast ballots on Thursday last week.

Opposition leaders say the changes to the constitution place Nkurunziza — whose party gave him the title "Supreme Eternal Guide" this year — above the law.

Evariste Ngayimpenda, a top official of the Amizero y'Abarundi opposition coalition, denounced "a process which was tainted with many incidents including arrests, imprisonments and killings".

"We reject these results and we will file a complaint, because the process was marred by lots of irregularities, even during the counting of the votes," he said, claiming that opposition campaign workers had been terrorised and refused access to polling stations.

Rights groups said campaigning and the vote itself took place in a climate of fear and intimidation, despite government denials that voting had been anything but free and fair.

Burundi ranks 159th out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index

In Washington, the U.S. state department said the government had allowed vigorous campaigning by the opposition during the designated two-week campaign period. "But numerous cases of harassment and repression of referendum opponents in the months preceding the vote contributed to a climate of fear and intimidation," spokesperson Heather Nauert said.

She also condemned Burundi's suspension of broadcasts by the BBC and Voice of America two weeks before the referendum.

"This decision along with other media restrictions, arbitrary arrests and harsh sentences for human rights defenders signals continuing limitations on civic and political space in Burundi," Nauert said.

Burundi ranks 159th out of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index compiled by the advocacy group Reporters Without Borders.

Nkurunziza (54) is a former rebel leader who came to power in 2005 at the end of a long civil war in which 300,000 died. The 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.

Nkurunziza was due to step down in 2015, but early that year announced he was seeking a third term, triggering deadly clashes with his opponents and a political and security crisis that has gripped the country of 10-million ever since.

Writing by Maggie Fick; editing by Alison Williams and David Stamp.