Local authorities reinforced these threats. Videos circulated on social media show authorities encouraging people to be vigilant toward anyone who may be against the referendum. In one example, on January 27, Revocat Ruberandinzi, the ruling party representative in Butihinda commune, Muyinga province, declared in a meeting that was filmed and posted online: “Whoever will be caught instructing people to vote no on the constitution [referendum], bring them to us. Do you understand me? The OPJ [judicial police] will not get here; we will take him ourselves…” In another example, on February 13, Désiré Bigirimana, the administrator of Gashoho commune, Muyinga province, told a crowd, “Anyone who says anything against the ‘yes’ [vote] or against Peter [President Nkurunziza], beat him over the head, and call me once you have tied him up.”
Government officials have also openly told Burundians that they must vote yes. A resident of Kayogoro commune in Makamba province told Human Rights Watch: “The communal administrator called a meeting in January to explain the referendum and why we had to vote yes. He sent the Imbonerakure out to force people to go to the meeting. We spent the entire day there; nobody could work. The Imbonerakure had clubs, and they would beat you if you did not attend.”
Gaston Sindimwo, Burundi’s first vice-president, was quoted in a January 18 Voice of America article as saying, “Political opponents who campaign for the no vote must be arrested because, for us, this is rebellious against the orders of the head of state.” Sindimwo also added, “If a member of the government is campaigning for the ‘yes’ vote, it is an error that will be corrected.”
The Burundian authorities should immediately and publicly order officials and Imbonerakure members to stop intimidating, beating, illegally detaining, and ill-treating people, Human Rights Watch said. The Burundian justice system should investigate and prosecute the crimes Human Rights Watch documented. The government should also publicly order the police to dismantle illegal roadblocks set up by the Imbonerakure.
In a 2016 letter to Human Rights Watch, Nancy-Ninette Mutoni, the executive secretary in charge of communication and information for the ruling party, wrote that Imbonerakure carry out political activities “calmly and serenely” and do not arrest people. “Those [Imbonerakure] who transgress are severely sanctioned first of all by the internal laws [of the ruling party] and if necessary, we will resort to penal laws,” she wrote.
Human Rights Watch shared the most recent findings with Mutoni but did not receive a response.
“The government has carried out widespread abuse of Burundians over the past three years, since President Nkurunziza announced his bid for a controversial third term, and now the government wants to force the population to prolong his rule even further,” Sawyer said. “The referendum campaign seems likely to bring even more crimes against the population.”
Descent into Lawlessness
Burundi has descended into lawlessness since April 2015, after Nkurunziza announced his bid for a disputed third term, despite the two-term limit set forth in the Arusha Accords. The political framework, signed in 2000, was the first of several power-sharing agreements intended to end the country’s civil war.
While Nkurunziza’s third term was disputed, the current constitution does not permit a fourth. The president and his party, the CNDD-FDD, called for a referendum to change the constitution to increase presidential terms to seven years, renewable only once. However, the clock on terms already served would be reset, enabling Nkurunziza to run for two new seven-year terms, in 2020 and 2027. The change could extend his rule until 2034.