Last Thursday, 17 May, Burundians voted on constitutional amendments proposed by the government of President Pierre Nkurunziza that would allow him to remain in office until 2034. The controversial referendum was preceded by a violent campaign of intimidation against perceived critics of the president and the vote.
Ahead of the constitutional referendum a presidential decree authorized imprisonment of up to three years for those calling for a boycott. President Nkurunziza also publicly threatened anyone attempting to “sabotage” the referendum process and there was a noticeable increase in hate speech and incitement to violence by some officials during the campaign. The government has subsequently reported that 73% of voters voted in favor of the proposed constitutional amendments. Opposition groups have denounced the outcome.
The political crisis in Burundi has been ongoing since Nkurunziza announced he would seek a third presidential term in April 2015. More than 1,200 people have been killed in politically inspired violence since then and more than 10,000 Burundians have been arbitrarily detained. Approximately 430,000 refugees remain in neighboring countries.
In the lead up to the 17 May referendum, elements of the security forces and members of the Imbonerakure – the ruling CNDD-FDD party’s youth wing – have intimidated, abducted, beaten, arrested, and killed alleged opponents of the proposed constitutional changes. On 11 May, less than a week before the referendum, 26 people were also killed in a massacre carried out by unidentified armed men in a village in northwestern Burundi.
The outcome of the referendum will also provide an opportunity for President Nkurunziza to abolish ethnic quotas within the government. Such quotas were put in place as part of the 2000 Arusha Peace Agreement, which ended an ethnic civil war that claimed over 350,000 lives in Burundi between 1993-2005.
In the aftermath of the referendum, it remains essential that the Burundian government deescalate tensions, end the violent targeting of political opponents, and avoid further ethnicization or militarization of the conflict. The UN Human Rights Council-mandated Commission of Inquiry on Burundi should be granted immediate access to the country in order to investigate alleged systematic and widespread violations and abuses of human rights.
On Thursday, 17 May, an attack by a presumed anti-Balaka militia against a convoy escorted by UN Mission in the Central African Republic (MINUSCA) peacekeepers left one peacekeeper dead and eight injured. The attack occurred near Alindao, a town located along the road between the cities of Bambari and Bangassou.
Three days earlier intense violence erupted in Bambari when dead bodies were found in the southern part of the city. While it remains unclear who was responsible for the killings, deadly fighting and inter-communal clashes began soon after their discovery on 14 May. According to reports, fighters affiliated with the Union for Peace in CAR, an ex-Séléka militia, raided the local police station in Bambari as well as the MINUSCA base, and fighting since then has resulted in at least eight people being killed.
During the violence in Bambari dozens of homes were burnt and local shops looted. Thousands of civilians were also forced to flee into neighbouring Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), including Central Africans previously displaced by violence in the southeast. According to the UN Refugee Agency, an estimated 14,000 refugees arrived in the DRC in less than one week. MINUSCA announced that it had resumed control of Bambari on 16 May, but tensions remain high.
MINUSCA is one of the most dangerous UN peacekeeping missions in the world, with fifteen peacekeepers killed during 2017. Directing an attack against peacekeepers can constitute a war crime under international law. Despite the UN Security Council authorizing an additional 900 troops for MINUSCA in November 2017 in order to improve its ability to protect civilians, they have still not been deployed.
Renewed fighting between Sudan’s armed forces and the Sudan Liberation Army/Abdul Wahid (SLA/AW) armed group has resulted in the displacement of civilians and the burning of Gobbo, Kawara and Kimingtong villages in South Darfur, as well as other villages in Central Darfur. Unlike a number of other Darfuri armed groups, the SLM/AW have not committed to a cessation of hostilities and since March its fighters have clashed with the Sudanese army across the Jebel Marra area.
In June 2017 the UN Security Council (UNSC) ordered a significant reduction in the size of UNAMID, the joint United Nations-African Union peacekeeping mission in Darfur. The phased cuts, which began in January, will result in the withdrawal of 44% of UNAMID’s military personnel and 30% of its police, as well as the the closure of eleven team sites. The Sudan Democracy First Group – a local civil rights organization – has previously warned that the troop reduction would leave civilians vulnerable to renewed violence.
The UNSC should closely monitor the precarious situation in Darfur and review the impact of the troop withdrawals. The UN and the AU should take immediate steps to ensure that the new temporary base in Golo, intended to enhance the protection of civilians in the Jebel Marra area, is fully operational.
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