Voting on the constitutional referendum is slated to be held across the country on Thursday, May 17. The referendum will decide whether to amend the constitution to extend presidential terms from the current five years to seven. The proposed changes would limit the president to two consecutive terms but would not take into account previous terms, potentially allowing the extension of President Pierre Nkurunziza's rule to 2034.
While widespread and significant unrest is not expected on the day of the vote, political gatherings related to the referendum and its results are nonetheless possible throughout Burundi, including in Bujumbura. A heightened security presence is anticipated throughout the country during the referendum, particularly around polling stations.
It is largely expected that the proposed constitutional amendments will pass. President Nkurunziza has warned that anyone who encourages citizens against participation in the referendum will be fined.
Political violence persists throughout Burundi nearly three years after the country's contested July 2015 elections. Nkurunziza was elected to a controversial third term in 2015 even though Burundian law stipulates a maximum presidential tenure of two five-year terms. While the country appears to be experiencing a period of relative calm (certainly in comparison to the violent outbreaks witnessed in 2015 and 2016), the situation remains worrisome, particularly in Bujumbura, where the risk of politically motivated outbreaks of violence remains. In February, Burundian police threatened to arrest individuals who campaign too early against the referendum and disturb public order; dozens of opposition members have already been detained in recent months for promoting a no vote.
Individuals present in Burundi should avoid discussing sensitive political topics in public spaces, avoid all public gatherings and demonstrations (especially those with no visible security presence), and maintain a high level of vigilance at all times. Be extremely vigilant in crowded places such as churches, markets, cafés, and bus stations.