Three ministers quit Burundi government in constitutional row

Burundi's President Pierre Nkurunziza leaves after the closing ceremony of the 14th annual Francophonie summit in Kinshasa October 14, 2012. REUTERS/Noor Khamis (Reuters)

By Patrick Nduwimana BUJUMBURA (Reuters) - Three ministers have quit Burundi's coalition government this week in protest over the sacking of a vice president, raising fears of increased ethnic tension in the small east African nation but posing no immediate threat to the government's survival. President Pierre Nkurunziza's CNDD-FDD remains the dominant political party in both government and parliament in Burundi, an impoverished country of eight million people that lies in the Great Lakes region of Africa. Nkurunziza, a Hutu, sacked one of his vice presidents, Bernard Busukoza, a Tutsi, last Saturday, prompting the resignation of the three ministers - also Tutsis and all from his UPRONA party - over the past three days. "I have responded to the demand of my political party which has asked its ministers to leave the government after the removal of the first vice president," Trade and Tourism Minister Victoire Ndikumana said in an open letter on Wednesday. The ministers of communication and communal development have already resigned. There was no immediate reaction from the government. The presidential decree sacking Busukoza accused him of causing tensions in the government after he requested the withdrawal of a draft proposal for constitutional reform submitted to parliament last October. ETHNIC DIVISIONS Opposition parties, civil society groups and religious organisations say the reform plan is aimed at allowing Nkurunziza, first elected as president in 2005 and re-elected in 2010, to seek a third term next year. Opposition parties boycotted the 2010 election. The proposed constitutional reform would scrap a current requirement which limits Hutus to 60 percent of positions in the government and parliament and guarantees Tutsis the rest. Burundi, which is heavily dependent on tea and coffee exports, has a turbulent post-independence history. Bitter divisions between the Tutsi and Hutu ethnic groups fanned years of civil conflict, though it has enjoyed relative peace since the former Hutu hardline rebel Forces for National Liberation (FNL) fully laid down their weapons in 2009. Under the constitutional reform plan, Burundi would have one, largely ceremonial vice president and a powerful prime minister instead of the current system of two ethnically balanced and equally powerful vice presidents. The reform would also forbid judges, defence and security personnel from forming trade unions and holding strikes and would allow only university degree holders to become president.