World News

In Tiny Burundi, a Huge Vote

Posted May 17, 2018 5:28 p.m. EDT

NGOZI, Burundi — As many as 5 million people went to the polls in Burundi on Thursday to vote on a referendum to alter the country’s constitution. I came here as one of the few foreign reporters with a visa and accreditation to cover the scenes at the polls, where voters are deciding on some significant changes.

The biggest change of the new constitution would be the extension of the presidential term, from five years to seven years. Pierre Nkurunziza, who has been president of Burundi since 2005, is widely expected to use the new constitution — if it passes — to run in 2020. Under the new rules, he could stay in power until 2034 — and then run again (and again) after sitting out for just one term.

Most foreign correspondents were denied access, and two weeks ago the government suspended the BBC and Voice of America from broadcasting inside the country.

With help from local journalists,I visited polls in the northern province, home to both Burundi’s president and his biggest challenger, Agathon Rwasa, and I spoke with those casting their ballots.

Supporters of the new constitution say it will make government more efficient, while critics say it gives the president near-total control.

While in Buye, in northern Burundi, I met a man who had just voted at the same poll where Nkurunziza also voted. He said he believed the promises that a new constitution would bring more development because Nkurunziza already has.

The voter cited free health care and schooling in particular. He didn’t get to go to school, but his granddaughter will.

A man who voted against the new constitution said his side could lose because women love Nkurunziza’s free maternal health care.

People who vote “no” were hesitant to share their names, and unwilling to be photographed.

It’s hardly a surprise. Rights groups have documented intimidation, and local officials have encouraged constituents to expose anyone they suspect doesn’t support the president. The consequences can be grave: More than 1,000 people have been killed and more than 425,000 have fled the country since 2015, when Nkurunziza pushed for a controversial — some say unconstitutional — third term.

A woman who makes a living in small trading in Bujumbura said she didn’t believe her vote would make a difference anyway: She said she believed the vote had been rigged.

“I can’t waste my time going to a poll when this thing is already decided,” she said.

One “yes” voter, who sells vegetables for a meager living, likes Nkurunziza’s free health care for children but when asked about the key change — a longer mandate for the president — herefused to answer.

“I have nothing more to say,” the seller said.

But others were keen to tell their stories. Albert voted for the new constitution for a few reasons, but mostly because, he said, the other side just wants to take over the country.

“Like the colonists did,” he explained.

Albert is 67 he said remembers them, and has no interest in that sort of thing happening in his country again.

Twenty-five-year-old Leonce is hoping changes in the constitution will give young people like him better access to education and better opportunities to find jobs.

He genuinely enjoyed voting.

“It’s my right,” he said.

But the lead-up to the vote was not without tension. Rights groups reported intimidation and abuse during voter registration. Human Rights Watch documented 19 cases of abuse, including the death of a man who didn’t have a registration receipt. The government disputes this.

Five million people registered to vote, and some expect they may need proof they voted, or face similar intimidation.

Voters show their registration cards at the polls, and after they vote, they get their finger inked so they can’t vote again, and their card stamped “Yatoye.”

Even though the process had critics who said people are afraid to speak their minds, the “no” side was allowed to campaign. Rwasa, once the archenemy of the president, appeared on state television. A man named Aloys told me it was the first time he had ever seen such a thing — the opposition being given the space on a government platform to voice its side.

In this complicated, beautiful place, there are as many truths as battles over them.