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Against the Will of the People

In October, the Council of Ministers in Burundi adopted a bill of amendments to the constitution. The most alarming change is to extend President´s term of office from two to four terms. Many see this as an attempt to establish some kind of monarchy, which is especially unacceptable because people fought against this kind of development in the latest civil war.
Jenna Kettunen
10.1.2014

Other suggested revisions are, among other things, to diminish Senate´s role (in favor of executive power) in appointing high officers, a stipulation that Prime Minister has to become from the same political-ethnic family as President, reduction in the statutory majority in the National Assembly to pass laws, and suppressed right of the magistrates and prosecutors to strike and form professional unions.

The process is widely viewed as a new constitution instead of revision of the existing one. It attempts to break the political and ethnic balance and distribution of power formed in the the Arusha Agreement for Peace and Reconciliation in Burundi.

The historical agreement was signed in August in 2000 after almost decade of the civil war. These principals were further incorporated to the existing constitution in 2005.

Burundians see the Arusha Agreement as the strongest effort to rebuild the country on the basis of constructive dialogue and consensual democracy, whereby different stakeholders are required to talk on regular basis in order to secure a frank and sincere dialogue on important decisions.

The consensual democracy was designed to prevent misgovernment that allows discrimination, human rights abuse and social injustice.

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The one-sided announcement of the government to revise the current constitution is not promoting open dialogue and participation.

In addition, some of the changes would really affect the political and ethnic balance. The current constitution provides for a quota of 60 percent of Hutu and 40 percent of Tutsi in the National Assembly. In the same vein, laws are passed following a vote made by at least 2/3 of the Members of the Parliament and only when voted by at least 2/3 of the MPs present.

This means that a bill, should it have an ethnic dimension, cannot be voted unless it is agreed on by both parties. If there would be reduction in the statutory majority to pass laws, it would affect this ethnic balance.

The now suggested amendments are contrary to the Arusha agreement and the current Constitution which states ”No amendment procedure can be accepted if it undermines national unity, cohesion of the Burundian people, the secular state, the reconciliation, democracy, the territorial integrity of the Republic.

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How is it then possible that the Council of Ministers could start this process?

Since 2010 the political and democratic space has gradually narrowed in Burundi. The main party CNDD−FDD maintains a quasi-monopoly in all republican institutions after opposition parties boycotted the 2010 general elections due to massive fraud during the municipal elections in 2009.

The opposition parties are regularly denied the right of assembly and their members are mistreated by the violent youth association called “Imbonerakure” that is affiliated to the ruling party.

One result of the diminishing democratic space was the oppressive Media Bill that was signed by the President in June 2013. The next step is the constitution revision to secure that power remains in the hands of the President and ruling party CNDD−FDD also in the future. 

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In 2012 UN mission in Burundi (Bureau des Nations Unies au Burundi) facilitated a meeting of all stakeholders and a roadmap to 2015 was jointly developed and signed. Just like the Arusha agreement, the roadmap emphasized security and open dialogue among all stakeholders. In its principles 13 and 14, the head of state is required to make all initiatives, motions and bills public for the stakeholders for their review and further dialogue.

Burundi is part of the EAC, and one might hope that the EAC would not allow one of its partner states to run against the very principles on which the community is built. The latter include democracy, rule of law, human rights and good governance.

Burundians expect and need the international community to play an important role in preventing Burundi to go back to the evils of the past. Burundian people also hope that republican institutions stop the current trend of undemocratic governance and prevent the situation where people are forced to use the assumption that "When injustice becomes law, resistance is a duty."

This blog has been written in cooperation with Vital Nshimirimana, the President of the Forum pour le Renforcement de la Societe Civile (FORSC).