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Burundi and Rwanda: A Deafening Silence

boys - att world bank

Things in Central Africa are changing. The surrender of the M23 rebel group in eastern Congo is undoubtedly "a reason for hope", after the continuous litany of violence brought by the M23 and its predecessors since 1998. However, the underlying conditions that fanned the flames of both greed and grievances are left unchanged - an anaemic state in a resource-rich region - and pending a settlement in Kampala, an estimated 2.500 soldiers remain at large, ready to be remobilized by the next commander in line. Moreover, Burundi and Rwanda, the two countries bordering the Kivus, are at risk. This may be surprising, as these are two countries that have put an end to a seemingly endless cycle of mass violence, episodes of which have punctuated their history since their independence, both in 1962.  And such a feat is not something that can be said of most countries affected by mass-scale sectarian strife, from Afghanistan to Iraq, from Syria to Sudan.

Sober for eighteen years

In both countries, just one generation ago, mass-scale violence wiped out a combined 1.2 million lives: between 160,000 and 230,000 in Burundi; around 800,000 in Rwanda in the 1994 genocide; and between 200,000 and 300,000 during the little-known second act of the 1994 genocide, this time against Hutus who had fled to eastern DRC. Sure enough, most Burundians and Rwandans have to live with ghosts of this recent past, but such mass violence now appears to be that - of the past. Both have passed the 18-year mark free of either.

In Burundi, elites and society at large have embarked on a peace process (1996-2000) that was remarkable in its nature, depth and ambition. Although the peace process was supported by external mediators, it was a democratization process driven locally, not the "democracy without democrats" found in so many other political transitions. Moreover, it was a process that did not shy away from the most difficult questions of the root causes of mass violence and how the ethnic card was waged by politicians to keep control of an extremely narrow power base. The Arusha Accord spells it out for the world to see: "The conflict is fundamentally political, with extremely important ethnic dimensions. It stems from a struggle by the political class to accede to and/or remain in power." The Accord also went far in organizing consociationalism, a form of power-sharing to reconcile the voice of the majority and the protection of minorities. As a result, René Lemarchand, considered one of the foremost scholars on Burundi, could state, "Few other states in the continent can claim to have emerged from a ten-year civil war under more promising circumstances than Burundi."

As for Rwanda, it was found that "no country in Africa, if not the word, has so thoroughly turned itself around in so short a time." The leadership focused on the gacaca reconciliation process and on delivering an impressive development record. Annual growth exceeds 5 percent since 2005 on average, and is projected to exceed 7.8% between 2013-2015. Moreover, by contrast to other African countries where impressive growth has not translated into development, poverty has dropped by 12% between 2006 and 2011, and access to education, health, safe water, sanitation and electricity is improving markedly, albeit from a very low base. Maternal mortality has dropped by half between 2000 and 2010. Net primary school attendance reached 91% in 2011.

This tour-de-force in both countries, each through an indigenous, home-grown process enjoying robust international support, is unparalleled in most countries affected by mass-scale sectarian strife.

Gains at risk

However, 18 years after their last respective episodes of mass violence, the gains in Burundi and Rwanda are at risk of being reversed.

In Burundi, the high hopes that followed the Arusha peace process were beginning to be met, and then a slide back happened sometime around 2010. Extrajudicial, politically-motivated killings reached a peak of 60-70 cases in 2011. Demographic pressures continue to threaten the country with limited land and unlimited land problems, made all the more acute by the return of 1.2 million refugees and displaced people and environmental degradation that affects nine out of ten families who depend on agriculture. This is a bonfire waiting for a spark, which could come from the convergence of three trends or events: 1) the swelling ranks of youth that are increasingly jobless, urbanized and knowledgeable; 2) a widespread and tightly knight network of youth groups who utilize violent tactics (the ImboneraKure, for example, march with chants such as "we will tie you up and shoot you"); and 3) the general elections scheduled in 2015. In spite of the 80 Burundian and international donors or experts I interviewed earlier this year who supported that the risk of a return to mass violence was now minor, it seems to me that the elements for a perfect storm are gathering.

As for Rwanda, the leadership has made some bold choices to recover from the traumas of genocide, giving priority to bread over voice or to growth over democracy, and aiming to become the Singapore of Africa. For several reasons, ranging from respect for home-grown solutions to the international community's desperate need for a poster child of aid that works, the international community decided to give Rwanda a break, claiming that "the jury is still out." But 18 years after the genocide, the jury simply must come in and take into account the equally unacceptable violence of the genocide's "Second Act." Long masked by the intensity of the violence unleashed during April, May and June 1994, a massacre of displaced people in Rwanda and refugees in eastern DRC unfolded from 1994-96. In fact, the eastern DRC became the battle ground for the next 15 years. In 2002 in Kisangani, I saw a mother literally loose her mind over the death of her baby. In 2004, before the eyes of UN peacekeepers Bukavu fell.  Between 2006 and 2009, we saw the CNDP exactions, as well as M23's from 2012 until November 2013.

The jury did come in suddenly last year. In November 2012, the United Nations Group of Experts on DRC denounced Rwandan support for the M23, a rebel group born in April 2012 in eastern DRC. It was followed by a group of fifteen international NGOs criticizing Rwandan support to the M23 and several major donors suspending their aid, if temporarily (Germany; Netherlands; UK; EU). In January, Howard French made a "Case Against Rwanda's President Paul Kagame" and in June, David Kampf called for Rwanda to "stop fuelling conflict across its borders" in order to win truly lasting stability. Last month, the U.S. suspended its military aid over the recruitment of child soldiers in M23.  And with more aggressive support from the newly formed UN Intervention Brigade, M23 surrendered in early November 2013.

What next? Amahoro and Amahera

To achieve their impressive recovery, both countries chose indigenous, yet radically different, paths. Burundi favored "amahoro" or peace in Kirundi and Kinyarwanda, dialogue and democracy and largely neglected economic growth. Rwanda prioritized making the dividends of peace tangible and material for ordinary citizens ("amahera", or money in Kirundi and Kinyarwanda), while opting for authoritarianism. Now that they both may be at risk of falling back, is one better positioned than the other to weather the storm?

Following the successful 2012 analysis by Acemoglu and Robinson, Why Nations Fail, and its comparison of development between China and India, I kept replacing "China" with "Rwanda" and "India" with "Burundi." Namely, if Burundi resumed its democratic path, it would be better placed than Rwanda to prosper in peace in the decades to come, even though Rwanda boasts greater development to date. This scenario for Burundi, however, is unlikely if we continue to be blind to the elite insecurities that have characterized its history but explain much of the developments since 2010; and to the fact that jobs and growth must cement peace. Nelson Mandela had the foresight in 2000: "It must be possible for the people of Burundi to materially distinguish between the destructiveness of conflict and the benefits of peace."

On the other hand, Why Nations Fail's conclusion on China does hold for Rwanda, which is likely to hit a brick wall unless it lifts domestic restrictions on civil liberties and cross-border support to rebel groups in DRC. Domestically, Uvin and Sommers find that, in spite of Rwanda's emphasis and tangible results in economic growth, Rwandan youth are much less positive about their options and possibilities than their Burundi counterparts. As for cross-border involvement, recent suspensions of aid and the current attention to responsible supply chains of minerals rapidly changing the incentives shaping Rwanda's behavior.

Needless to say, Burundi and Rwanda only have the impact of a small Chinese or Indian municipality on the world economy, but they matter because they are the test of what we really mean by "never again" allowing the mass atrocities of World War II. A test of whether we will not only identify megatrends such as environmental issues, urbanization and demographics, which are bound to collide in a shrinking world, but also address them — using a response that embraces the range of policies and initiatives that influence nations' peace and prosperity. And a test, specifically of whether we can think of peace and prosperity together, rather than focus on amahoro in Burundi and amahera in Rwanda. Because of all the kin, security and trade ties across borders, an unstable Burundi or Rwanda would significantly enlarge the black hole in the heart of the "Hopeful Continent."

Juana de Catheu, Founder of Development Results, advises the UN and EU on development and security issues.

Photo attributed to World Bank Photo Collection on Flickr.

About the Author

Juana de Catheu

Africa Program

The Africa Program works to address the most critical issues facing Africa and US-Africa relations, build mutually beneficial US-Africa relations, and enhance knowledge and understanding about Africa in the United States. The Program achieves its mission through in-depth research and analyses, public discussion, working groups, and briefings that bring together policymakers, practitioners, and subject matter experts to analyze and offer practical options for tackling key challenges in Africa and in US-Africa relations.    Read more