Burundi can give its neighbour—and the world—a lesson in peaceby Will Paxton / March 19, 2012 / Leave a comment
Published in April 2012 issue of Prospect Magazine
(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 Tutsi and Hutu. Today they have almost the same ethnic make-up, with two dominant groups—Hutu and Tutsi—and another very small group, the Twa. The Tutsi, historically a cattle-owning higher caste, are a large minority and the Hutu, traditionally arable farmers, the majority. However, before the Belgians issued identity cards and explicitly favoured the Tutsi in their rule, ethnic differences were less stark. If a Hutu gained a certain number of cows, he could become a Tutsi. The difference was more akin to a class relationship than an ethnic one.
One result of the common colonial experience and ethnic division is a shared history of ethnic violence. Before its most well-known genocide, Rwanda saw mass killings in 1959, 1963 and 1973. In 1972, Burundi had what has been called a partial genocide and 1988, among other years, witnessed massacres. So twins—yes, albeit with a troubled relationship. But why “evil”?
In April 1994, a surface-to-air-missile downed the plane carrying Rwanda’s Hutu leader, Juvénal Habyarimana, triggering the genocide. Sitting next to him on the plane was Cyprien Ntaryamira, the Burundian president; his death brought new turmoil to an already stormy period. In 1993 the previous president had been assassinated, plunging the country into civil war.
Unsurprisingly, after 1994 any form of order was elusive in Burundi. There were further failed coups and false dawns as peace processes, including one involving Nelson Mandela, came and went. It was only in 2003 that the main combatants signed a peace deal and in 2005 that a new constitution was created. In total, around 300,000 people were killed. Even today, rebel groups render large areas unsafe. In September, 36 people were gunned down in a bar near Bujumbura. This turmoil has acted like a handbrake on development.
Rwanda has been stable since 1994, fostering low levels of corruption and effective social and economic policies. These, and international support, are helping it develop. Its capital Kigali is ordered and clean with new buildings popping up. In February the government boasted of continued growth, falling poverty and even a modest reduction in inequality—the holy trinity for many development economists.
Burundi, in contrast, reeks of decay. Paint and plaster peel off buildings. The roads seem to be falling apart. On the capital’s streets the threat of crime is present in a way unimaginable in Kigali. And some of Bujumbura’s greatest assets—beautiful beaches on Lake Tanganyika—are dirty and unloved. Western interest in the country is muted and few seem to question why it loses out when it comes to aid. Rwanda, with a national income per person three times that of Burundi, received around 30 per cent more aid per head in 2010. Britain recently axed all bilateral aid for the poorer twin.
Burundi’s leader Pierre Nkurunziza is known as the “avocado president” for his penchant for eschewing the capital in favour of planting avocado trees around the country. This is a popular policy with his people, but it lacks Kagame’s determination to drive development. In Kigali it is hard not to be impressed by the progress and by people’s desire to achieve more. Burundi feels like a place without a future.
But as any good researcher looking at a twin study will know, you need to look for the differences over the long-term too. Rwanda is the greater success today, yet it could end up learning from Burundi’s very different approach to ethnic division.
In Rwanda, stability has been achieved partly by the drive to stress national, not ethnic identity. Given the genocide, the exhortation that “we are all Rwandans” is understandable. But it is striking how far the government goes to downplay ethnic identities. There is no official recognition of different ethnic groups. While there is an unwritten rule that the prime minister to President Kagame should be a Hutu, officially questions about the balance of Hutus and Tutsis in power do not arise. For someone brought up in a liberal western society, the self-censorship is unsettling. Even those in the NGO community will whisper the words Hutu and Tutsi or use code when talking in public. Political activity is tightly controlled and discussion managed through a system of forums while the country focuses on economic development.
Visit a café 140km south and the contrast could not be greater. With better-off Burundians, it is hard to avoid a discussion that touches on ethnicity. The 2003 ceasefire explicitly recognised ethnic groups—and sought to bind them into the political system. The National Assembly must be 60 per cent Hutu and 40 per cent Tutsi. Ethnic quotas in the police and military are used not as tools of Hutu dominance, as they were in pre-1994 Rwanda, but to build Tutsi confidence. The police and military have quotas, for rank-and-file and officers. Institutions have been designed to give Tutsis a voice, within a system of checks and balances, even if Hutus wield more power and a Tutsi presidency is unlikely. The risk is that ethnic groups co-exist peacefully but are largely segregated: think of Northern Ireland. But the aim is to build long-term confidence in state institutions.
These contrasting approaches reflect different conceptions of how to respond to diversity in a society—a starker version of the debate about multiculturalism in the west. Rwanda is assimilationist and emphasises its citizens are Rwandan, never mind their ethnic identity, more like France, for example. Burundi is more multiculturalist, like Britain traditionally or Canada today.
Rwanda is surely right in its attempt to emphasise what Hutu and Tutsi have in common. The question is whether it is wrong to pretend that ethnic identities can be managed away by economic growth. The risk is that the tensions are only hidden for a while, like a comet which disappears into deep space for years before emerging out of the darkness again. In the former Yugoslavia, decades of apparent stability under the rule of Marshal Tito masked antagonisms which, in the right conditions, exploded.
Kagame’s achievements since the genocide are undeniably impressive. Yet as we compare the two countries, the question is whether Rwanda’s response to ethnic differences is sustainable. Rwanda may have bought itself time, but may yet need to learn from the approach of its neighbour.