Tension Grows Around Referendum In Burundi : The Two-Way Rights groups accuse the government of intimidating and even killing opponents of the vote, which could extend the rule of President Pierre Nkurunziza.

Tension Grows Around Referendum In Burundi

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There is an important vote taking place today in the central African nation of Burundi. Citizens there are voting on a referendum that would allow the president to extend his rule through the year 2034. Now, the run-up to this vote has already been marked by violence, and there are fears this controversial referendum could unleash even more. NPR's Eyder Peralta has been monitoring the situation from his base in Kenya, and he joins us. Hey, Eyder.


GREENE: So how's this vote playing out so far?

PERALTA: I mean, so far, we know that people have begun voting. We have not heard any reports of major violence, but a colleague in the capital, Bujumbura, tells me that at least one effort from people to vote no has been stopped by police. And as you mentioned, you know, the run-up to this has been incredibly tense. Opponents of the referendum have been beaten, tortured and even killed. And over the weekend, the government said terrorists crossed the border from Congo and killed two dozen people in a small village. The government didn't say if this had anything to do with the referendum, but it gives you an idea of the kind of tension and fear in the country.

GREENE: Yes, certainly, at the very least, people who are opposed to this president, it sounds like they are living in fear potentially. Can you remind us of the context here? I mean, who is Burundi's president, and how did we reach this point where he's trying to extend his rule for a very long time?

PERALTA: Yeah, so Pierre Nkurunziza became president in 2005, and he really ushered in peace after what was a really long and bloody civil war. And he came to power under a new constitution, and it was a constitution that called for inclusion and protected the interests of the minority Tutsi population. It was really a victory for the region. But in 2015, Nkurunziza stepped out of the constitution and decided to run for a third term. There was a coup attempt, but it failed, and Nkurunziza survived. And since then, the country has been in the kind of slow burn conflict. But it's serious. More than 450,000 Burundians have fled to neighboring countries.

GREENE: Wow. And so if that conflict has been simmering, is this the moment when there could be a return to an all-out bloody war?

PERALTA: I mean, that has certainly been the fear. You know, the country has a lot of the same dynamics that Rwanda does. It has the same ethnic groups. And back in 2015, after the coup attempt, there was a real fear that Burundi could become the next Rwanda. But I spoke to Yolande Bouka, a researcher at the University of Denver, and she has studied the current situation in Burundi in-depth, and she says this is much more complicated than tribe. Let's listen.

YOLANDE BOUKA ASSOUAN: So we're not only talking about Burundi, a potential risk for ethnic tensions. We're talking about Burundi, a country where political actors, regardless of whether they are Hutu or Tutsi, have a lot to lose if they're not in line with the political elite within the CNDD-FDD.

PERALTA: So the CNDD-FDD is a ruling party in Burundi. And Bouka says that we should keep in mind that in 2015, the people who attempted a coup against Nkurunziza were fellow Hutus. So, yes, there is a chance that this will become very violent and driven by ethnicity. But this referendum also makes it a lot harder for anyone with political ambitions to take over power democratically. And so that leaves the door open to violence.

GREENE: Well, given all of this, Eyder, any idea how this vote is going to go?

PERALTA: No. I think there's very little doubt that this referendum will go through. And the thing to remember is that this is bigger than the extension of a president's rule. In a lot of ways, it begins to erode the compromises that brought peace to Burundi. So if it passes, as we think it will, you know, it's going to have a significant effect.

GREENE: Eyder, thanks a lot.

PERALTA: Thank you, David.


GREENE: NPR's Eyder Peralta reporting from Kenya.

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