NAIROBI - Burundi has officially kicked off campaigning ahead of the May 17 referendum, with government officials telling people to vote "yes" to the constitutional changes.
Officials say the amendments would provide a much-needed update to the country's political system. However, critics say the initiative is all about extending the current president's rule.
President Pierre Nkurunziza has made clear his opinion on the proposed constitutional changes. Speaking at a rally in the second largest city, Gitega, Wednesday, he warned those who want to vote "no."
"I would like to declare this to Burundians and those who are not — whoever opposes this constitutional changes will meet God's power," he declared.
The most controversial proposed amendment deals with presidential term limits — a topic that led to deadly unrest Burundi in recent years.
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. He has been in office since 2005.
If the referendum passes, Nkurunziza could potentially stay in power until 2034. He told VOA there are threats everywhere
Agathon Rwasa, a former presidential candidate and vice president of the National Assembly, is campaigning for "no."
"There are threats," he told VOA. "If they hire to our group, they will be banned, so it's a big challenge. But we do hope these threats won't be effective."
The government has insisted the changes are aimed at strengthening the country's laws to bring an end to political upheaval.
But human rights groups have expressed concern over the political environment in which the referendum is being held. They say the ruling party youth wing, known as Imobonerakure, is targeting those suspected to be campaigning or are planning to vote against their party's wishes.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) says opponents of the referendum have faced beatings and arrest in the run-up to the vote. HRW researcher Lewis Mudge says it will be difficult to get a fair result.
"It's happening in the context of state killings of people who are against Nkurunziza's third mandate, which we saw significantly in 2015," he said. "It's happening in the context in which journalists and civil society have either been locked up or kicked out of the country and in which opposition internally is either muzzled or ceases to exist. So it's a very worrying perspective in terms of medium and long term."
VOA, BBC ban
At least 1,200 people have lost their lives since Nkrunziza announced his bid for a third term in 2015, and more than 400,000 Burundians have fled the country.
On Friday, Burundi's National Communications Council announced a six-month ban on broadcasts by Voice of America and the BBC. The Council said the broadcasters have broken the country's media laws and engaged in "unethical conduct."
The United States was a strong critic of the president's decision to seek a third term in 2015, and more recently denounced the alleged acts of violence against opponents of the referendum.