Burundi's president, Pierre Nkurunziza, made a surprise announcement Thursday that he would not run in the 2020 election, despite changes to the constitution that would allow him to potentially rule until 2034.
Nkurunziza had been expected to take advantage of changes to the constitution passed in a mid-May referendum in order to run for two seven-year terms once his third five-year term ends in 2020. Among the constitutional changes were changing presidential terms from five to seven years and expanding presidential powers.
"We assure Burundians and the international community. Our term will end in 2020. This constitution was not modified to favor President Nkurunziza, as the enemies of the country spread recently," 54-year-old former rebel leader said at a ceremony enacting the new constitution in central Gitega province. "I swear and am really ready, with all my heart, with all my mind and with all my strength, to support the new president we will elect in 2020."
Nkurunziza has ruled the small East African country since 2005, winning elections at the end of a 12-year ethnically-driven civil war that killed more than 300,000 people. The civil war mirrored that in neighboring Rwanda, pitting minority Tutsis against majority Hutus.
Tensions flared in 2015 when Nkurunziza, from the majority ethnic Hutu group, sought and won a third five-year term that his opponents said went against the constitution and peace deal that ended the civil war. The lead up to the election was marked by a failed coup and protests.
Since then, violence has killed at least 1,200 people and displaced another 400,000 civilians. The International Criminal Court is currently investigating the state and its agents, including the ruling party's militant youth wing, the "Imbonerakure," for possible crimes against humanity.
Nkurunziza's third term has been marked by heightened authoritarianism and repression, according to human rights groups. A number of opposition political figures have fled the country.
The opposition claimed last month's referendum was tainted by intimidation and fraud.
Nkurunziza still has 'room to maneuver'
Nkurunziza has previously said his third term would be his last, but that he would run again if the people demanded it. His ruling CNDD-FDD party recently declared him "supreme eternal leader."
According to Jordan Anderson, an African political risk analyst at IHS Markit, Nkurunziza's statement "leaves him with room to maneuver and plenty of time before 2020 to change this public position."
"If we hear messages coming out from CNDD-FDD leaders and the Imbonerakure calling for Nkurunziza to stay on as we move towards 2020, that suggests the way is being prepared for another Nkurunziza about-face on this question," he told DW.
In neighboring Rwanda, President Paul Kagame held a similar constitutional referendum in 2015, claiming that it was not about his personal ambitions for power.
Two years later he ran and won a third term after saying that he succumbed to the people's pressure to run again.