Burundi constitution change risks opening ethnic wounds

December 1, 2013 9:35 am
Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza. Photo/AFP
Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza. Photo/AFP

, BUJUMBURA, Dec 1 – Highly controversial plans by Burundi’s government to revise the constitution has threatened a delicate ethnic balances in a nation still healing after decades of conflict, opposition parties and civil society warn.

The government talks about a simple and minor “tweaking” of the constitution, but critics accuse Bujumbura of a “constitutional hold-up” that risks awaking old ethnic demons that have plagued the small central African nation, torn in the past by civil war, rebellion and massacres.

Critics also see the move as a way for the president to cement another term in power.

Changes would reduce the two-thirds parliamentary majority currently needed to pass a law to a simple majority — effectively handing total legislative power to Hutu MPs who form a majority in parliament. Tutsi MPs hold 40 percent of seats in the house.

That percentage is crucial, since currently it not only limits the stranglehold of a single political party, but also stops the Hutu majority from having political dominance over the Tutsi minority.

The planned reform would also reduce the powers of the first vice-president, who has to belong to a different party and a different ethnic group than the president, and would strip the Senate of its power to ensure the distribution of government jobs reflects the country’s ethnic balance.

President Pierre Nkurunziza, is a Hutu from the main Burundian Hutu party (CNDD-FDD), while first vice-president Bernard Busokoza is a Tutsi, from the main Tutsi party, UPRONA.

The key constitutional provisions are rooted in the Arusha Peace Agreement of 2000, the foundation stone of a 2006 deal that ended 13 years of brutal civil war for the country, situated in the continent’s still volatile Great Lakes region.

At least 300,000 people were killed in that war, sparked by a 1993 coup by extremist Tutsi army officers to topple the first Hutu elected president since independence from Belgium three decades earlier.

“In Arusha, Burundians decided to create a consensual democracy, in which no ethnic group can make big decisions without the consent of the other,” said UPRONA president Charles Nditije.

“If the CNDD-FDD has its way, it is the death of the guarantees of the Arusha peace agreement, and it opens the way for the dictatorship of an ethnic group,” he warned, noting gloomily of the “risk of a resurgence of ethnic conflict.”

Three terms for president?

The agreement set down power sharing between the Hutu majority — 85 percent of the population and now in power — and the Tutsi minority, making up 14 percent, but led the country for much of its history since independence

Burundi’s history is marred by bitter ethnic killings, with massacres in 1972 and 1988, as well as civil war.

Tensions remain high, with rebel gunmen launching a series of attacks since the 2010 boycott of general elections by Burundi’s opposition.

UPRONA party spokesman Tatien Sibomana warns Hutus want to “exclude Tutsi from decision making roles” noting that Tutsis are already in “a minority in the army and the police.”

However, the constitution also provides for ethnic equality in the army and security forces.

Civil society first sounded the alarm in early November, when the draft constitutional revision process was brought to light.

More than 560 organisations launched a campaign called “do not touch the Arusha consensus”, which also criticises moves by the government to delete clauses blocking the president from running for more than two consecutive terms.

Nkurunziza has never made any secret of his desire to run for the third time in 2015 “if his party names him as a candidate.”

Late last month, the opposition group Alliance of Democrats for Change (ADC) threatened to stage street protests if the government did not organise a debate on the issue.

“They crossed the red line by trying to change the constitution of Burundi without consulting anyone,” said Alexis Sinduhije, president of the Movement for Solidarity and Development (MSD).

“One party… cannot give itself the right to touch the ethnic balance set down by the Arusha peace agreement, and which brought Burundi out of the war,” said former president Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, a highly respected Hutu.

Faced with criticism, the government has said it is ready for talks, but the opposition, which wants an outright withdrawal from the project remains wary.


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