The ins and outs of Burundi's constitutional reforms

Tuesday May 15 2018

As Burundians vote in a referendum Thursday, all eyes are on the review of presidential term limits that could keep Pierre Nkurunziza in office until 2034.

However this is only one of several changes that threaten constitutional stability in the east African nation, and would allow the president to consolidate power, critics say.

What are the main changes?

Burundi's current constitution was drawn up in 2005 and aimed at keeping an ethnic balance in the corridors of power after a civil war marked by violence between the Hutu and Tutsi communities that began in 1993.

The amended text allows a president to seek two seven-year mandates instead of the initial two five-year mandates, which could allow Nkurunziza to again run for office under the new rules in 2020.
It also shifts more power into the hands of the head of state, changing the system of government by removing one of two vice presidents and creating the position of prime minister.

Until now, the constitution stipulated that executive power be shared between the president, two vice presidents and the government.


The new draft says that the nation's policies are "defined" by the president and "carried out" by the government.

The future vice-president, who must come from a different ethnic group and political party to the president, has had his powers considerably reduced.

The prime minister, from the ruling party, is only charged with co-ordinating government actions.

The new text makes no changes to the sensitive issue of ethnic quotas, which currently states that government and parliament must be made up of 60 per cent Hutus and 40 per cent Tutsis.

However, it opens the possibility for the Senate to review and possibly modify this balance.

And finally, control of the feared National Intelligence Service, which depends directly on the president's office, has been watered down in the new constitution, and exempted from respecting the ethnic balance required by the army and police.

How is Nkurunziza's power bolstered?


Not only is Nkurunziza the head of cabinet, despite the creation of a prime minister position, but constitutional measures guaranteeing the presence of opposition parties in government have been scrapped.

The draft also changes the quorum required for laws to be adopted in parliament from a two-thirds majority to an absolute majority.

On top of that, any law adopted by parliament becomes null and void if it is not signed by the president within 30 days, putting legislative power in the hands of the head of state.

Does this threaten the Arusha Accords?

The peace deal, signed in the Tanzanian city of Arusha in 2000, paved the way to ending Burundi's civil war, which left more than 300,000 dead.

The opposition and civil society critics say that the constitutional reforms will "bury" the Arusha Accords by breaking the political-ethnic balance that they brought about.

The accords created a power-sharing formula between the Hutu majority — who had long been sidelined by the minority Tutsi, who feared a genocide like the one in neighbouring Rwanda.

Constitutional checks against power being concentrated in one party were seen as vital to the peace deal.

The International Federation of Human Rights (FIDH) said that since Nkurunziza sought a third mandate in 2015, plunging the country into deadly political crisis, his ruling CNDD-FDD has used violence, repression and a crackdown on the media to bring the whole country and its systems under his "stranglehold".

"The planned adoption of this new constitution presents a danger to peace in the country and threatens to accentuate fractures in Burundian society."