The politics of crises in Burundi

Burundi is coming unglued. A political crisis has been brewing there for months now. The ruling coalition is breaking up, the other party in the union having realised that it has always been in a marriage of convenience. Sadly, the fallout between the National Council for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD) and the Union for National Progress (UPRONA) means that Burundi is, yet again, at a crossroads.
Lonzen Rugira
Lonzen Rugira

Burundi is coming unglued. A political crisis has been brewing there for months now. The ruling coalition is breaking up, the other party in the union having realised that it has always been in a marriage of convenience. Sadly, the fallout between the National Council for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD) and the Union for National Progress (UPRONA) means that Burundi is, yet again, at a crossroads.

Unfortunate as that may be, it should come as no surprise for anyone with some interest in the political happenings in that country. Perceptive observers know that the present crisis is a symptom of a more serious problem in the body politic. 

The 1993 post-election crisis triggered the Burundi peace process under the mediation of the then retired Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere in 1995.

Upon his death, the late Nelson Mandela, at the time President of South Africa, stepped into his shoes. He later bequeathed the role of mediator to his successor, Thabo Mbeki. That African political heavy weights would concern themselves with Burundi was an indication of how low it had sunk and of its importance in efforts to promote peace throughout the region.

Their efforts paid off. In August 2000, the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement was signed by all the main warring parties, except Agathon Rwasa’s Forces for National Liberation (FNL). With the cessation of hostilities a result of these accords, the country proceeded to hold parliamentary elections in 2005, establishing a body that elected Pierre Nkurunziza as president, for a five-year term, his mandate being to oversee the transition. In 2010, he was re-elected, this time by popular vote in direct elections.

Some, though, would argue that the election in 2010 was the first time he was actually being elected, and that it was therefore his first term in office as a fully-fledged President rather than one overseeing the transition. Whether he was elected for the first time or re-elected in 2010 goes a long way in explaining the immediate causes of the current crisis and lays the ground for the 2015 presidential election. With the accords restricting one from serving more than two five-year terms, supporters of the president argue that 2010 was his ‘real first term.’ For them, the initial five years were ‘transitional’ and therefore don’t count.

Those who oppose this argument are emphatic that the president is currently serving out his last term, and that the only way he can stand again legally is through a constitutional amendment, which, in any case, they are prepared to deny him. It is worth noting, however, that President Nkurunziza has yet to pronounce himself on whether he will seek re-election.

The crisis, however, is underlain by a more serious problem: ethnic arithmetic. It emerged out of the Arusha accords where adversaries agreed that the main cause of the conflict in their country was the failure to share political power between the two main ethnic groups. This is an important point because how a problem is defined is important in determining how it could be resolved.

Accordingly, they reached a formula for equitably sharing political power. What came to be known as the 60/40 solution was in fact a method for allocating government positions between the Hutu and Tutsi, respectively. Similar logic was used to hammer out allocations to the legislature and the security forces. In the Senate, for instance, each province must provide two senators, a Tutsi and a Hutu. Indeed, for all his time in power, Nkurunziza has had a Tutsi and a Hutu in the position of first and second vice president, respectively. That’s why when the Tutsi vice president, Charles Nditije, was fired, it was seen as ‘an attack on the Tutsi community, which has broken the delicate balance’ holding the country together.

The cold truth is that all this is myopic. Its only purpose is to serve as fertile ground for germinating crises; it nurtures a political environment that triggers crises, at times as a result of the most trivial of disagreements.

While as a short-term strategy for ending hostilities, ethnic arithmetic might make some sense, it is inappropriate in efforts to build institutions necessary to moderate disagreements and deliver services for the promotion of the common good. It is true that all over the world some form of arithmetic to cater for political constituents is often applied. For this to be meaningful, however, it must be applied alongside considerations of individual competence.

Ethnic arithmetic on its own is a cosmetic endeavour. On the surface it creates an illusion that all is well. However, it does not stop other crises from bubbling onto the surface. Its application as a primary preoccupation is akin to building beautiful castles on sand. It nurtures corruption and incompetence, with a negative impact on human life as every key indicator of human welfare is neglected or left to deteriorate, with ordinary people yet again falling victims to intra-elite contestation.

Rwanda, which commentators often mention in conversations about Burundi and in comparison with it, chose a different strategy. The results are there for all to see. For Burundi, therefore, time for a rethink seems to have arrived. Will Burundians seize the occasion?

 

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