Rwanda’s “evil twin”

Prospect Magazine

Rwanda’s “evil twin”


Burundi can give its neighbour—and the world—a lesson in peace

(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.

  1. April 16, 2012

    Frederick Golooba-Mutebi

    Will Paxton, like many western journalists, goes to Rwanda having read about the country and picked up some nice phrases about ethnicity, post-genocide developments, etc. It is a good way of making oneself appear to know his subject. I say \making oneself appear\ because that is ultimately what it boils down to. You cannot know a country by reading a few books about it and going there for a few days. Consider this: he wonders \whether Rwanda’s response to ethnic differences is sustainable\. What, if I may ask, are those DIFFERENCES? He talks of a Tutsi presidency being \unlikely\ in Burundi whose management of \ethnic differences\ which he won’t specify is, in his opinion, more sustainable than Rwanda’s. Would he say a Hutu presidency is Rwanda is also \unlikely\ in the same way he believes a Tutsi presidency is in Burundi? He talks of opposition parties having \pulled out\ of the presidential elections in Rwanda in 2010. Mr. Paxton, please name the parties which \pulled out\.

  2. June 13, 2012

    Josh Brookes

    This article, whilst valiant in its attempts to be considered, is one of many in a 18 year history of western journalists critiquing the post-war Rwandan regime, based on a set of liberal assumptions which lack relevance and meaning in a culture they seek to critique.
    Kagame has successfully united a country left in a dire state by colonial rulers. Paxton makes assumption’s about the value of multi-culturalism as modelled in societies such as Britain. However in a society with Rwanda’s history the west simply doesn’t have the theory and history of success at its disposal to address the ‘problem’ of ethnic divide in Rwanda. For example, in Bosnia, where external intervention did attempt to address ethnic divide, the jump to elections was hardly successful in breaking down these barriers. Therefore, hard as it is for western critiques to stomach, when it comes to ethnicity in Rwanda, Kagame may know best.
    As Richard Dowden has argued in this publication, Africa needs its own form of democracy, by extension a ‘successful’ Africa does not necessarily need to be a model of a ‘successful’ western democracy. Africa can be successful on its own terms. We must allow it do be.

  3. January 8, 2013

    Mukiza edwin

    Amazed iam that The author assumes that the Rwandan system that has led Rwandans to take on their problems hands on with a unity of purpose doesn’t gurantee the peace..And the burundi system that has led to economic and political decay will sustain the peace in the long run. A Burundi system that favours blind majority rule whilst fostering mind boggling corruption directed against all Burundians in the name of democracy is to us in Rwanda un-sustainable and an insult. A people should occupy public office out of merit not out of ethinic solidarity. By fostering equitable service delivery to all,the Rwandan system re-invents the interpretation of power distribution not as a measure of how many political elites occupy state offices but how many Rwandans access health care,education or electricity. If the Burundi model is a peace gurrantor,then why are the Hutu FNL rebels fighting against it?

  4. January 8, 2013


    This is one of the few articles written by western scholars on a comparison of Political, economical and social developments of Rwanda and Burundi. It is highly commendable that the author tried to write with an objective angle even if to some readers feel that the article seems to lack credible source of information or enough research. I believe that the two previous comments were posted by individuals to who are full of mirror images. As much as you support your leader, which is a very good thing, you should not deny every sort of critics that is written about him or the country that he leads without critically analysing the contents of the critics. The author raised genuine concerns of any person living in Rwanda and Burundi and i would even go as far as saying that he pretty analysed the situation like some one who have lived in those two countries for a while. I wish the author could write more pieces of a kind. Great article buddy.

  5. May 3, 2013


    I am Rwandan, and I have to agree with Murundi.
    i think this is one of the fewer articles, that are ACTUALLY describing
    the complex situation of Rwanda and Burundi.
    I am also afraid that in Rwanda, long term speaking, there Will be war again.
    And it would hurt me so much to see all this progress, vanish again.
    Both countries should take a close ook at each other, and learn from it.

Leave a comment


Will Paxton
Will Paxton co-edits IPPR's new politics journal and works on development and education 

Share this

Most Read

Prospect Buzz

  • Prospect's masterful crossword setter Didymus gets a shout-out in the Guardian
  • The Telegraph reports on Nigel Farage's article on Lords reform
  • Prospect writer Mark Kitto is profiled in the New York Times

Prospect Reads

  • Do China’s youth care about politics? asks Alec Ash
  • Joanna Biggs on Facebook and feminism
  • Boris Berezosky was a brilliant man, says Keith Gessen—but he nearly destroyed Russia