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Burundi Government Denies Using Constitutional Changes to Cling to Power

Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza arrives for the celebrations to mark Burundi's 55th anniversary of independence at the Prince Louis Rwagasore stadium in Bujumbura, July 1, 2017.

The government of Burundi says a recently launched referendum campaign is aimed at strengthening and advancing the country’s laws after more than two years of political violence. But some experts say the government wants to use the referendum campaign to legitimize its rule.

The Burundi government has launched a referendum campaign to change the constitution. The government insists its move is to strengthen current laws and improve others.

Agathon Rwasa, vice president of the National Assembly and a former presidential candidate, says the president wants to stay in power beyond 2020.

“'Til this very minute, the so-called project of amendment of the constitution has been concealed, and I wonder why? Since a constitutional matter is a national one why should President (Pierre) Nkurunziza hide it till this moment. But for the time being it seems that they are in haste, for what purpose I don’t know. All that we can see it’s clear that Nkurunziza is aiming at remaining in the office for life,” said Rwasa.

The government says the draft has about 300 clauses that will be subject to a referendum in 2018.

President Pierre Nkurunziza's deputy spokesman, Alain Diomede, said the controversy surrounding term limits is one of them.

“That has also been thought of because it was very controversial in 2015 because people interpreted some articles of the constitution differently. This time is very clear that term limits cannot be more than two, it means you can only have one term, renewed once. Another thing is its plans to have a term of seven years, not five years, like it was in the 2005 constitution,” he said.

The 2005 constitution and Arusha peace agreement brought an end to Burundi’s long civil war, which claimed the lives of more than 300,000 people.

Some critics still question the manner in which Nkurunziza contested and won the 2015 elections. His opponents accuse him of violating the constitution and argue the president was not supposed to run in that election.

Attempts to hold talks to end the political crisis have failed several times after the government refused to negotiate with opposition groups they accuse of initiating violence in the country.

It is estimated more than 2,000 people have lost their lives, and more than 300,000 have fled the country since 2015.

Mustafa Ali, a security and conflict resolution expert, said Nkurunziza wants to use the referendum to legitimize his rule.

“If many people vote and the majority vote that he continues staying, it's legitimate. The problem with that legitimacy is, and knowing of many African countries, is that that legitimacy could as well be bought because he is going to use monies that he and his close handlers have looted from the Burundi people to buy their loyalty," said Ali.

In 2015, the Supreme Court ruled in Nkurunziza's favor so that he could run again. He argued in his first term in 2005 that he was elected by parliament, not by voters.

The government says the electoral commission has been given the green light to prepare for the referendum and it will have six months to do so.