Fear casts shadow over Burundi vote on extending president's rule

By Reuters

BUJUMBURA - Burundians stood in long lines on Thursday to vote in a referendum that could let President Pierre Nkurunziza stay in power to 2034, deepening fears of political repression and ethnic conflict in the heart of Africa’s Great Lakes.

Nearly half a million people have fled since Nkurunziza, a 54-year-old former sports teacher and ethnic Hutu guerrilla leader initially prolonged his decade in charge by running for a disputed third term in 2015.

He first came to power in 2005 at the end of a long civil war in which 300,000 died.

The landlocked East African country has broadly the same ethnic make-up as neighboring Rwanda, where 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were slaughtered by Hutu extremists in a 1994 genocide.

The referendum asks voters to say “yes” or “no” to constitutional amendments that would allow Nkurunziza to seek two more seven-year terms beginning in 2020.

Nkurunziza, a fitness and football enthusiast, expressed happiness at the turnout, urging voters to go to the polls early so the result could be declared early.

“We take this opportunity to call on all people of voting age to do their civic duty and present themselves at polling stations as soon as possible so that this exercise can be concluded,” he told reporters after casting his ballot in his home village of Ngozi.

Armored vehicles and police patrolled neighborhoods of the capital, Bujumbura, on Wednesday evening. Most people questioned by Reuters said they did not understand the constitutional changes and were only voting out of fear.

A 50-year-old man, who did not want to be identified to avoid being targeted for retribution, said turnout was high “not because of goodwill but because of fear”.

“There has been intimidation - whoever doesn’t go to vote is going against the government’s will,” the man said.

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