Dispatch

The view from the ground.

The Country in the Mirror

As international darling Rwanda becomes increasingly authoritarian, neighboring Burundi experiments with a unique and chaotic brand of central African democracy.

By , a journalist who writes about the Niagara Falls frontier region between Canada and the United States.
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images
ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

Behind one of the beaches that line Burundi's capital city, Bujumbura, 10 men sat at a bar in the afternoon sun, passing cigarettes, buying bottles of beer. I had just arrived on the bus from Rwanda to report on the neighboring country. They welcomed me to their group, and soon I asked, nervously, whether ethnicity was still a problem. One of them threw his arm around my shoulder and gave me a cold Primus beer. He laughed and started pointing.

"He's Hutu," the man said, going down the circle. There were even students from Rwanda, on vacation at the beach. "Hutu, Hutu, Tutsi." The men smiled and raised their glasses. "That one over there is a Tutsi, a colonel in the army." It didn't matter that ethnic war had decimated Burundi, as it had Rwanda; the banter wasn't taken offensively, and the men were drunk. This was life in Burundi -- in your face, but honest.

The contrast with Rwanda couldn't be more striking. Later this summer, Rwandan President Paul Kagame will face a test as the country holds its second presidential election since the 1994 genocide. The test is not so much the vote itself -- Kagame is almost guaranteed to win -- but whether he can survive the political lightning storm surrounding the vote. In April, Victoire Ingabire, a Hutu presidential hopeful, was arrested for challenging Kagame over crimes committed in the genocide's immediate aftermath. In May, her American lawyer was arrested too, over genocide denial. In what many see as a fit of defensiveness, Kagame has clamped down on newspapers, other politicians, and members of his own cadre, and has delivered fiery sermons defending his virtue.

Behind one of the beaches that line Burundi’s capital city, Bujumbura, 10 men sat at a bar in the afternoon sun, passing cigarettes, buying bottles of beer. I had just arrived on the bus from Rwanda to report on the neighboring country. They welcomed me to their group, and soon I asked, nervously, whether ethnicity was still a problem. One of them threw his arm around my shoulder and gave me a cold Primus beer. He laughed and started pointing.

"He’s Hutu," the man said, going down the circle. There were even students from Rwanda, on vacation at the beach. "Hutu, Hutu, Tutsi." The men smiled and raised their glasses. "That one over there is a Tutsi, a colonel in the army." It didn’t matter that ethnic war had decimated Burundi, as it had Rwanda; the banter wasn’t taken offensively, and the men were drunk. This was life in Burundi — in your face, but honest.

The contrast with Rwanda couldn’t be more striking. Later this summer, Rwandan President Paul Kagame will face a test as the country holds its second presidential election since the 1994 genocide. The test is not so much the vote itself — Kagame is almost guaranteed to win but whether he can survive the political lightning storm surrounding the vote. In April, Victoire Ingabire, a Hutu presidential hopeful, was arrested for challenging Kagame over crimes committed in the genocide’s immediate aftermath. In May, her American lawyer was arrested too, over genocide denial. In what many see as a fit of defensiveness, Kagame has clamped down on newspapers, other politicians, and members of his own cadre, and has delivered fiery sermons defending his virtue.

From their economies to their geology, Rwanda and Burundi are virtually identical in almost every way. The two countries share the same two ethnic groups and the same tensions between them — specifically, that from roughly the 16th century on, the minority Tutsi have ruled over the pastoral, majority Hutu in varying degrees of strictness, and the two countries’ conflicts have affected one other’s with often tragic results.

But recently, the two countries have taken starkly different paths. In contrast to orderly Rwanda, the darling of the international aid community, Burundi is violent, dysfunctional, and chaotic. On the plus side, civil society in Burundi is indigenous and true, and unlike in Rwanda, ethnicity is not being ignored. Politics can breathe.

Burundi is also holding elections this summer, a series of local, presidential, and parliamentary votes. The playing field in Burundi is more open than in Rwanda, and with myriad parties, politics more reflective of society. But it is also more tumultuous. So far, five leading parties — including one led by one of the country’s most notorious rebel veterans — have announced intentions to boycott June’s presidential vote over allegations that President Pierre Nkurunziza already rigged the first set of local-level elections, held in May. Politicians have been shot. People have already taken to the streets. Tear gas has already been fired.

The parallel contests offer an opportunity to reflect on which political system stands a better chance of solving ethnic tensions that have gripped this war-wracked region for generations — and the results might confound our assumptions.

The national boundaries in Africa’s Great Lakes region can be fluid. Many Burundians and Rwandans have family in both countries, as well as in eastern Congo, and travel between them often. If one home is not working out, they try another. But the two countries followed very different historical paths, which helps explain the differences in their current political trajectories.

Hutu and Tutsi lived together in Burundi for centuries under a Tutsi monarchy. Under the kings, relations between the two groups grew strained. Upon independence in 1962, the monarchy held onto power, but not without violently putting down Hutu uprisings that led to massacres of Tutsis in response and the creation of a Tutsi military state. In 1972, approximately 200,000 Hutus were massacred by government troops after hundreds of Tutsis were killed in the country’s south. In 1993, the first Hutu president was kidnapped and murdered by Tutsi extremists. Then Tutsis were massacred. Then Hutus again. Ethnic civil war broke out, but after a decade the struggle was more about each militia group jockeying for power.

Rwanda’s history is much more one-sided. Under the rule of Tutsi King Kigeli IV in the middle of the 19th century, relations between Hutu and Tutsi also grew polarized, but after gaining independence on the same day as Burundi, power was thrown suddenly to the majority Hutu who, after generations of social inferiority, launched a series of measures — and later pogroms — against the Tutsi, causing many of them to scatter. There were not only rigid definitions — there was an insider-outsider mentality. After the 1994 genocide, when the victims took over, those riptides switched again.

This time the current is feverish. Kagame’s ruling Tutsi party has tried to undo 30 years of history by delegitimizing Rwanda’s post-independence Hutu government, blaming it for all the country’s ills. Last April, the national tomb of the country’s first president, a Hutu, was dug up and given back to his family. Rwanda’s foreign minister and government spokeswoman recently told the New York Times, "Reconciliation starts with the killer asking for forgiveness." Sixteen years after the genocide, guilt remains political currency, and the Hutu are in debt. Increasingly, it is taking the tone of a permanent revolution.

The hand of the state is everywhere in Rwanda, and it operates at a finger snap. Kagame has built a powerful ideological machine, complete with all the gears and levers necessary to maintain stability and re-create society. Ethnicity has been officially deleted, taken off ID cards and out of public discourse. Bringing it up, or tensions from the past, can land you in jail, potentially for life. The national language has been switched from French to English. The national flag has been redesigned from its old form, which was associated with the genocide-era regime, to one with new colors and a new meaning: a golden sun rising brightly over clear blue skies. The infrastructure is decorated in newly minted cross-country highways, fiber-optic cables, and government ministries in shiny new buildings. Street food, meanwhile, is banned. So is playing outdoor music during the evening. Rwanda has become a case study in autocratic nation-building. The country’s tourism sector is blossoming. Last year the World Bank named Rwanda the most-improved country in which to do business, after it jumped 76 spots on the bank’s "Ease of Doing Business" ranking in one year.

Burundi, meanwhile, is a mess. Although democracy may be alive and well in the country, it is armed to the teeth. Most of the country’s political parties are former rebel groups, and they — and humanitarian watchdogs — accuse each other of still raising militia squads. The country’s hills are littered with weapons and tens of thousands of former soldiers with nothing to do. In the countryside, roaming bandits commit rape and armed robbery nightly. Politicians have recruited former soldiers to their political parties, if not to use as activist thugs, then to defend against others. Just days into the local elections, opposition parties were already calling for a revote. A strong state hasn’t emerged, and the country remains volatile.

Human Rights Watch recently released a report warning against election violence between the political parties, and was summarily expelled from the country. Burundi’s own intelligence service has been picking off political opponents for years. Judges have been kidnapped and whistle-blowers stabbed literally in the back, on streets at night. More and more, critics say, President Nkurunziza is acting like President Kagame.

More and more, it seems like Burundi’s unique democratic experiment coming to an end, which is probably good news for the autocrat next door. 

Josh Kron is a journalist who writes about the Niagara Falls frontier region between Canada and the United States. He currently studies screenplay writing at Vancouver Film School and was formerly a reporter for the New York Times in East Africa. His work has appeared in the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Playboy, Huffington Post, and Congressional Quarterly, among other outlets. Twitter: @JoshKron

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