Burundi can give its neighbour—and the world—a lesson in peaceby Will Paxton / March 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
(Above) Decay in Burundi’s capital
Even those people who claim to know little of Africa have heard of Rwanda. Like Auschwitz and Srebrenica, the name is forever linked to one of the 20th century’s defining acts of depravity. Possibly more than 1m people, predominantly Tutsi, were hacked to death with hoes, machetes and whatever came to hand; the international community failed to take action and a United Nations mission was left floundering in the chaos.
Some may have watched Hotel Rwanda, a film which tries to capture the brutality of what happened in 1994. More recently, President Paul Kagame has been credited with turning Rwanda into an African success story, although his growing number of critics cite the suppression of public debate, the murky handling of the 2010 election (all the opposition parties pulled out of the contest alleging fraud and vote rigging) and the worry that, as with previous African “big men,” he will fail to stand down at the 2017 election as the constitution requires.
But few will have heard of Rwanda’s “evil twin.” That’s how one Kigali resident described its neighbour Burundi to me. Many would struggle to place the country on a map. But Burundi is both interesting in itself, and also when set alongside Rwanda. The two countries provide a fascinating experiment—a “twin study”—of how societies can move forward after traumatic ethnic clashes because they have embraced such different models of how to do so.
It is easy to see why Rwanda and Burundi could be called twins. The countries share a rugged and hilly topography which has produced similar patterns of farming and village life. They are poor and densely populated. Both speak complicated Bantu languages—Kinyarwanda in Rwanda and Kirundi in Burundi.
This year each will also mark 50 years of independence from Belgium. Although the immediate post-colonial experiences differed in important respects—in Rwanda a Hutu-led revolution abolished the monarchy, while in Burundi the Tutsis and an aristocratic group called the Ganwa retained power—both have a similar colonial history. The Germans were followed by the Belgians who took over when the allies stripped the Kaiser of his colonies after the first world war. Under the Belgians the two countries were governed as one entity, with Bujumbura, today the semi-tropical lakeside capital of Burundi, the main city.
As a result both countries live with the same bitter colonial legacy which hardened the ethnic divide between…