14 May 2018

Burundi Gears Up for Constitutional Referendum

Photo: The Citizen
Army soldiers stand near a barricade surrounded by a crowd of protesters (file photo)..

Burundians gathered in churches Sunday to pray for peace as the country prepares for a controversial referendum which could extend the president's term in office. The Catholic church has said it will fight to protect the democratic gains in the country after its request to postpone referendum vote was denied.

Twenty-eight-year-old Leonard Nijimbere is one hundreds of Burundians who attended a Sunday church service in the country.

“Today in the church we were taught how to love and live with other people in harmony,” he said.

Nijimbere is Catholic.

According to multiple churchgoers no politics was discussed in the church that is in the center of Burundi’s capital Bujumbura.

The Catholic church has come out against President Pierre Nkurunziza government's plan to change the constitution.

The head of the Conference Catholic Bishops of Burundi Joachim Ntahondereye says they will fight to protect democracy in the country.

“Some how now we are facing a setback," he said. "There is possibility to work for that democracy in the future. But of course we have to work for that the future might be better, that’s why we are calling on the people to safeguard peace and unity and to engage themselves for a better democracy in the future.”

Burundi will hold countrywide referendum vote on May 17. Some of the issues Burundians will have to choose are whether to extend president Pierre Nkurunziza's term until 2034.

The current term is five years, but the new amendment would give the president a seven-year mandate. The constitution limits the president to two terms, but it is argued that the change would reset the clock for Nkrunziza to run twice more.

Nijimbere, a student at a local university, says he will vote on that day.

He says “I will vote since I am qualified as a voter. Nothing is going to stop me from voting. When that day comes I know the choice I am going to make.”

Nijimbire lives in the opposition neighborhood which has been campaigning against the constitutional changes.

One registered voter who refused to give his name spoke to VOA about the referendum.

“I will vote for fear of my well being. When I walk in the street and they ask whether I voted I will show them that I have voted but I don’t like to vote,” he said.

The voter spoke of threats and intimidation presented by the ruling party youth wing known as Imbonerakure.

Human rights agencies have accused Imbonerakure of killings, arrests and attacks on opponents in the run up to the Thursday’s vote.

At least 1,200 people have lost their lives since Nkrunziza announced his bid for a third term in office in 2015, and more than 400,000 Burundians have fled the country.

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