Burundi: A Political Crisis or a Crisis in Politics?
After 3 years as a development consultant in post conflict areas, over 4 years at senior executive management level in financial institutions in conflict and post conflict areas, 4 years of part-time university lecturing, and over 5 years’ experience in non-profit organizations, Willy Nzisabira is now the Director of the “Catalyst” think tank, a network of Burundians, both in the Diaspora and in Burundi, with a mission of transforming Burundi into a peaceful and prosperous nation, in the context of the East African Community and the Great Lakes region, through promoting appropriate values, principles, policies and structures. He is also a consultant in strategic investment and business development in various parts of Africa with a history of conflicts or potential political instability.
Hidden in Central Africa between the massive DR Congo and the big Tanzania, the tiny country of Burundi is not famous for its size of 27,834 km2; nor for the size of its economy, which ranks the country among the ten poorest countries in the world with a GDP per capita of $162; nor for its population size of 8,419,673; nor for one of its health indicators of 0.03 doctors/1000; nor for its various natural resources such as nickel, uranium, platinum and gold, which are not only insignificant compared to its neighbours but also not yet exploited. Instead, for the last five decades, the nation of Burundi has been famous for a series of crises which have seriously hampered its socio-economic development.
For more than a decade (1993-2005), local and regional peace talks have been initiated. Numerous, including the international community, are those who have tried to find a way out of the endless Burundian conflicts, with a belief that Burundi was going through a political crisis. However, the outcome seems to be worsening political, economic and social violence and inequalities. Faced with the current reality, two questions arise in any honest mind that seeks for what is right for all Burundians:
- Were the suggested solutions based on political forms, procedures and technicalities wrong?
- Were the real fundamentals of Burundian politics understood in the political mapping of Burundian future?
Here, I am not attempting to answer the above questions, but I will provide some historical facts that explain the failure of the current system, caused by a mismatch between the proposed political reforms and the understanding of politics by Burundians.
Fundamentals of Burundian politics as revealed by history
1. The concept of authority: Authority is acquired and protected by force, not by political ideas or values nor by vision.
Created during the 16th century by Ntare I Rushatsi Cambarantama, who established his authority over many principalities through a series of conquests, it is only in the 19th century that one of his descendants, King Ntare III Rugamba, conquered the whole Burundi as it is known today, plus some parts of today’s Tanzania and DR Congo. This concept of authority that is closely linked to military power was given strong roots in Burundian politics by the forceful imposition of Germany’s colonial system; and by all the political changes that Burundi has known, i.e., 1961(assassination of Prince Rwagasore), 1966 (First Republic), 1976 (Second Republic), 1987(Third Republic), 1993 (coup d’état and genocide), and an endless civil war.
2. The concept of a leader: The national leader owns the national wealth, and he re-distributes it as he sees fit. His mandate is not from the people, therefore not accountable to them.
Politically, the country was ruled by Baganwa (princes), who owned most of the land and cattle. The nation’s political economy revolved around the concept of “Ubugabire” – distribution of cows to create a lord-vassal relationship; and “Umuganuro” – distribution of seeds and authorization to plant by the king. This system gave to the royalty considerable socio-political influence and to the wealthy class considerable socio-economic influence. Since the social structure was based on the family clan (Umuryango), not on ethnic group as is the situation today, these influences were deeply rooted in the organization of Burundian society.
3. The concept of power: power is measured by the level of harm that can be caused by the beholder, not by the extent of change that they can bring about. Thus the army becomes the backbone of the political system, not its arm.
Following the 1885 Berlin conference, Burundi came under German East African Administration in 1899. The conquest of the central powers was sealed by the 1903 Kiganda treaty, after years of military campaigns that caused heavy losses which remained in the collective memory of Burundians. The royalty lost most of its political powers, built over centuries through military expeditions, to the new more powerful colonial master, whereas the latter agreed to put down the Kirima-Maconco rebellion that they had supported in order to destabilize the ruling class. The army, more than ever, became a tool of the leaders to secure their power over the population. The early years of independence showed that without military backing no leader could consolidate their power, however popular they could be. The post-colonial political instability, which created a political vacuum, gave the army a central role in the management of the country since 1966 with the advent of Capt. Micombero military regime up to now.
4. The concept of ethnic politics: From the old belief that Tutsis are fit to rule the country for political progress to the new belief that only Hutus are fit to rule for social justice.
After WWI, the League of Nation mandated to Belgium the territory of Ruanda-Urundi in 1923 and a series of reforms that quickly and deeply distorted Burundian society were carried out from 1925 onwards.
Administration reforms that weakened political powers, created political injustice and social pressures were introduced: the regency, made up of the two powerful princes Ntarugera and Karabona together with the queen mother was replaced by an easily influenced ten-men royal council characterized by the antagonism between the two main royal families (bezi vs. batare); the replacement of all Hutu chiefs (33%) by Tutsi chiefs in a short span of 15 years created leadership-related ethnic tensions; the creation of new administrative territories mainly administered by Tutsis who were not from royalty created a new class of elites that had no room in the existing social setting; with the abolition of “Umuganuro” the king lost the backbone of his socio-economic power and Hutus lost a sacred ceremony that valued their role in the society; the replacement of the sacred institution of Abashingantahe (traditional judges) by modern educated judges caused the judiciary system to lose the sacred aspect that was based on character rather than knowledge or qualification held mostly by the educated Tutsi.
5. The concept of development: There has always been a lack of ownership in national development by Burundians and more emphasis is placed on private infrastructures development at the expense of public infrastructures development and maintenance, which is believed to be the concern of the state, not the one of the society.
Belgian economic reforms to promote growth were introduced by force using intimidating methods such as prison and whipping for those unwilling to adopt the new way of doing business. This strategy is at the root of the lack of ownership for economic development that is still observed even today. For a long time Burundians have been at the receiving end of both development projects and funding.
6. The concept of society: The Burundian society is understood by many as an ethnic federation, where same-ethnic structures (marriage, political parties, business shareholding, etc.) are the norm, while inter-ethnic structures are an exception left to idealists.
The social restructuring carried out by the Belgian stressed the ethnic origins rather than family (clan) in the organization of society. A study emphasizing the ethnic differences was conducted (eugenics). Only children of the elite Tutsi were sent to good public schools, Hutu were mainly sent to missionary school whereas Twa were forgotten in the new structure, leaving them without education and consideration in the society. Together with the political reforms, the social restructuring is at the root of the ethnico- political conflicts that are still influencing the socio-political setting based on the power sharing between Hutu and Tutsi, leaving the Twa only to be co-opted in the system.
7. The concept of political institutions and structures: More consideration is placed on political individuals rather than political institutions and structures. Thus political institutions and structures are built to fit the interests of the leadership rather than individuals being trained to satisfy the requirements of political institutions and structures.
Full independence from Belgian administration was proclaimed in 1962, less than a year after the assassination of the independence figure Prince Louis Rwagasore and the execution of the believed perpetrators, Prince Birori and his brother Prince Ntidendereza, the leaders of the opposition. With the death of these three princes the Burundian political leadership was decapitated at an embryonic level and the political transformation lost its momentum. The old fundamental understanding of politics that the leaders had to be from the ruling class, i.e., princes or their protégée, prevailed. The socio-political realities could only cater for weak institutions and structures to fit the chosen ones – eight prime ministers and governments were appointed between 1962 and 1966; and two Hutu prime ministers were both assassinated in 1965 (i.e., Pierre Ngendandumwe during his second term and Joseph Bamina). The first political insurrection of Hutus following the death of Bamina was put down in 1965.
8. The concept of the Republic: The republic is just a form of political system that gave the power to leaders other than a member of the royal family; however, the image of a leader remained the same as the one of a king and princes. Thus the political leadership space was opened to any Burundian with leadership ambition to plot for the presidential seat. Since then, two main ideologies have been used by the Hutu and disadvantaged Tutsi to conquer, consolidate and maintain power – ethnic and regional ideologies. These ideologies, under various umbrellas, have fuelled the many massacres, civil wars, regional conflicts, and the 1993 genocide, thus significantly contributing to the five decades of social, economic and political instability.
In an attempt to resolve social problems by political solutions – i.e., a new form of political system – the First Republic was proclaimed in 1966 by Capt. Michel Micombero. His ten-year rule was characterized by series of ethnic and regional conflicts which gave deep roots to the genocide and regionalism ideologies in Burundian politics. The fruit of the politics of those days were observed in the 1969 believed plot by Hutu army officers, the 1971 believed plot by Tutsi army officer originally not from Bururi, the 1972 massacres of Hutus, the 1988 massacres of Tutsis, the 1993 genocide and the death of so many innocent Hutus and Tutsis since 1993 up to today, mainly for political reasons.
In attempt to resolve political problems by economic solutions – i.e., land reform, industrialization and public infrastructure development – Col Jean-Baptiste Bagaza proclaimed the Second Republic in 1976. During his eleven years of rule, the nation has witnessed a remarkable economic growth which was unfortunately controlled by an oligarchy close to the president’s clan and regional background. While the regionalism ideology was deepening, the Hutu-Tutsi issue became a taboo and the imposed political, economic and social inequalities were accepted by the powerless population. The fruit of the politics of the Bagaza military regime can be observed in the regional conflicts between and within ethnic groups. The culture of misappropriation of public funds by a few privileged political leaders saw its heyday during the same era.
In an attempt to resolve political problems by social solutions – i.e., a national unity charter – Major Pierre Buyoya proclaimed the Third Republic in 1987. Ending ethnic divide and inequalities was the core of his agenda over the period of his leadership; however, his solutions to national problems were limited to their forms and symbols, naively ignoring the essence of those problems which had grown deep in the social, economic and political life of Burundians. Thus details such as numbers, quotas, technicalities, procedures, and ideologies were given more weight than those details that would strengthen a state, such as rational policies, administrative capacity, truth and honesty, justice, real political representation and the protection of the people while introducing socio-political reforms. The fruits of the foundation of Buyoya’s politics are seen in the outcome of the Arusha Peace Talks.
9. The concept of democracy: “The rule of the majority”, understood by the average Burundian as the wish of the majority to be the absolute law of the land, is easily perceived in the minds of the people in ethnic terms – thus widening the gap between the interests of the Hutus emphasizing rights and seeking for more control of the nation’s life, and the interests of Tutsis emphasizing competence and seeking for more security for their lives. In people’s minds, political agenda, vision and sound judgement have no determining value in politics; being a Hutu with populist opinions makes a big difference during elections. Advantaged by their numeric dominance, Hutus see themselves as the only rightful leaders and guardians of national sovereignty, irrespective of their political performances and abuses.
Since 2005, in the name of democracy, all the countless leadership abuses – corruption, assassinations, and many other human rights abuses by the current government led by President Nkurunziza – are safely covered by the political forms, procedures, technicalities and symbols agreed upon in Arusha while the ill-governed population has become a prisoner of an irresponsible system with so many inherited abusive fundamentals in Burundian politics.
Naively, the Burundian transition favoured the form of political system, symbols, technicalities, and quotas over the transformation of Burundians politics, which has been the crux of the numerous social, economic and political issues. A transformation based on sound politics that promotes a proper balance between active citizenship and state building is a pre-requisite for peace and prosperity in Burundi.