The Catholic Task Force for Africa (CTFA) sent letters to President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry urging them to use all diplomatic tools including making personal calls to Burundian President Pierre Nkurunziza to encourage him to refrain from running for a third term.

The ongoing crisis is about the interpretation of Article 96 of the Burundian Constitution ratified on March 18, 2005 which states that “The President of the Republic is elected by popular votes for a term of five years renewable once.” President Nkurunziza and his supporters argue that his first term does not count because he was elected by the National Assembly under article 302 of the constitution. This article stipulates that: “Exceptionally, the first President of the Republic of the post-transition period is elected by the National Assembly and the elected Senate meeting in Congress, with a majority of two-thirds of the members.”

After a failed attempt to amend the constitution, President Nkurunziza hopes that the court will side with him. However, many Burundians do not trust the independence of the courts and therefore having the court re-interpret the article is already suspect. Africa Faith & Justice Network’s Executive Director, Rev. Aniedi Okure asks this question: “If President Nkurunziza was confident that he was entitled to another term under the constitution, why did he try to amend the same constitution for the same purpose?” Reverend Okure notes that “given that the Arusha Accord of August 28, 2000 predates the Burundian constitution ratified about five years later on March 18, 2005, trying to interpret the ‘popular vote’ clause is a desperate attempt to hang on to power by all means.” Rev. Aniedi Okure notes further that “article 302 in no way annuls the Arusha Accord. Rather, it clarifies what, in exceptional case constitutes popular vote”.

In their Pastoral Letter of March 6, 2015 the Catholic Bishops Conference of Burundi strongly urge the president to respect the constitution: “…we, the pastors of the Catholic Church of Burundi, aware of the peace agreements and the constitution that stem from the agreements charter (article 8, 96, 103 et 302), listening to our consciences and as citizens who love their country and are faithful to their duty as church leaders who should prevent their country from relapsing into sectarian violence, division, and war, make the following statement: the truth is clear. The president elected by the people of Burundi must not exceed the two terms of five years stated in the constitution.” The international community has been meeting with President Nkurunziza since the crisis intensified, but so far he has not been swayed.

Already there are reports of Burundians leaving the country in anticipation of the violence which President Nkurunzia’s candidacy is likely to create. It is important that President Nkurunziza realize as President Goodluck Jonathan of Nigeria puts it “No person’s political ambitions is worth the lives of the citizens”. President Nkurunziza should choose the lives of the citizens of Burundi over his personal political ambitions.

Read Burundi’s constitution in English or in French. Also read the letter to President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry . Learn more about the Arusha accord here particularly page 35 (Document is in French)