Burundi is no ‘aid orphan’ nor is Rwanda an ‘aid darling’

  • Eric Mwine-Mugaju
  • 1 Jul 2019

As both Burundi and Rwanda mark 57 years of independence on July 1, how have two countries that share so much found themselves in such radically different situations?

In May 2, 2018, Burundians attend a ruling party rally to launch its campaign calling for a "Yes" vote in the upcoming constitutional referendum, in Bugendana, Gitega province, Burundi. One ruling party official urged people "to castrate the enemy." ( AP )

On July 1, both Rwanda and Burundi will celebrate their independence days. At first glance, there’s little that tells the countries apart.  

The two neighbouring countries share the same history, and are culturally near-identical. But as they mark their 57th anniversary they couldn’t be more different, especially on the socio-economic score. 

One would assume that the so-called creative seed of post-conflict, run-away economic growth that germinated in post-1994 Rwanda could have easily blossomed in Burundi as well. After all, they were not a creation of colonialists but established kingdoms prior to the arrival of Germans and Belgians. They share a similar ethnic setup of Hutu (70 percent), Tutsi (20 percent) and Twa (1 percent). 

How can these two countries share so much but yet be so different?

Rwanda has earned the moniker the ‘Singapore of Africa’, Burundi is a failing state. Rwanda has President Paul Kagame, a ‘visionary leader’ who pulled the country from the brink of total self-destruction, making it a model for post-war recovery. 

Burundi has President Pierre Nkurunziza, a demagogue obsessed with his football skills who sees himself as a deity. He has christened himself the country’s ‘eternal supreme guide’.

While state effectiveness is usually measured by its outcomes, it is the enabling factors that actually matter. Thus the understanding of development outcomes cannot be limited to analysis of the volume of aid, ethnic setup and identity of the donors or how autocratic the state is.

Local elites in Burundi and Rwanda are not exactly ‘free agents’, they are largely shaped and constrained by structures and histories. They are certainly not mere pawns of powerful donors and their agendas. 

The aftermath of the fatal 1994 plane crash, taking the lives of the then Rwandan and Burundian presidents, was a defining point for the nations’ disparate development trajectories. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), under Kagame, and the National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD–FDD), under Nkurunziza (from 2005), saw Burundi earning the ‘false-twin’ label against a more successful sibling-Rwanda. 

About 500,000 Burundians have fled to nearby countries since 2015, when Nkurunziza announced plans to run for a third term. Rwanda has been peaceful since 1994 and even has a dream of attaining middle-income status by 2020. 

In the recent report by the Norwegian Refugee Council, the Burundi displacement crises is ranked the fourth most neglected in the world only behind Central African Republic, Democratic Republic of Congo and Cameroon, thanks to a lack of media attention.

Global media attention on Rwanda as an ‘aid darling’ and the less featured portrayal of Burundi as an ‘aid orphan’ perhaps does not explain the complex realities in both countries. The current differences are a bigger function of how conflicts end and the legacies they leave behind. Rather than seeing aid as an exogenous factor, causing particular development outcomes, the role of local agency is important here.

After the 1994 plane crash, a civil war broke out in Burundi but its institutions remained intact, while Rwanda descended into a genocide coming out with all institutions broken.

Despite the onerous task of rebuilding, Rwanda emerged out of conflict with a well-articulated ideology. RPF fighters first under Fred Rwigyema and later Kagame were well-trained and highly disciplined. Influenced by the ideas and structures of Yoweri Museveni’s National Resistance Movement in Uganda and other revolutionary movements such as Mozambique’s Frelimo, they appealed better to media, donors and academics with their language of liberation and development, which Kagame would become master of.

Unlike the RPF, the Burundi CNDD–FDD has its origins within a breakaway faction of the party that had won the 1993 elections. Meaning that while the CNDD–FDD and the RPF were both rebel movements seeking to influence and capture state power, they were very different kinds of organisations. The CNDD–FDD was constantly affected by desertions and realignments depending on alternative opportunities for leaders and fighters. Adding this to the competition from other Hutu movements with competing voices, it was and is still harder for Nkurunziza to be in total control. 

Once the RPF captured power, they did not face competition from other Tutsi factions. Enjoying more centralised control under the RPF, Kagame gained a near-monopoly over information and the production of knowledge about the history of the genocide. The RPF uses the language of unity and reconstruction, which has continued to resonate well with development institutions.

Even with the inclusive Arusha Accord, the assumption that shared power would appeal to donors never came to be. The CNDD–FDD under Nkurunziza is unable to articulate a narrative that resonates with opponents and development institutions. On Labour Day 2018, in utter contempt for a ceremony designed to honour the country's workforce, Nkurunziza awarded his 12-year-old daughter for behaving well at home.

Weak, with a limited capacity to mobilise revenues and a non-existent accountability mechanism, he has introduced ‘election tax’ and tasked a militia Imbonerakure (meaning ‘those who see far’) of collecting it and roughing up dissidents. His observers would not be surprised if he tried the most audacious tactic previously employed by Joseph Kabila - claiming insufficient money for elections to stay in power. 

Overshadowed by its more successful neighbour, Nkurunziza’s dismal record means that even when he decided to have a similar ‘enemy’ to Rwanda, by banning the BBC from investigating atrocities, he still remained unpopular. 

The significant degree of similarity between Burundi and Rwanda should not blur some important historical differences. Rwanda was more centralised than Burundi, the king in Burundi delegated power to regional chiefs, mostly Tutsi, but had to appeal to both Hutu and Tutsi to prevail.    

Post-independence Burundi elites, especially the current government, have been unable to exploit such inclusivity.

Both the management of its history and international relations has enabled Rwanda to come out on top. As the leader with an ideology, Kagame stands his ground on ideas. Accused of not taking criticism, he has managed the previous toxic Rwanda-France relationships - they are jointly re-examining the role of France in the genocide.

Yet Rwanda can afford to be decisive, such as closing its border with Uganda. When Nkurunziza accuses Rwanda of interfering, he is quickly reminded that it was his neighbours that brokered the deal that brought him to power. Unable to exert influence in the region, Burundi has failed due to poor management of its historical legacy and political relationships rather than a lack of aid.

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