03/01/2015 05:44 EST | Updated 05/01/2015 05:59 EDT

What Burundi Can Teach Rwanda About Democratic Governance

Then there is the matter of political competition for higher office. There is no such a thing in Rwanda. Members of genuine opposition are either in prison, exile or mysteriously die in and outside Rwanda. Leader of the Unified Democratic Forces party, Victoire Ingabire, who was barred from running for presidency in 2010 is in prison.

Rwanda and Burundi are in the news for wrong reasons. In Rwanda, people keep showing up dead. In less than two months, a leading businessman, Assinapol Rwigara, an army captain and President Paul Kagame's former driver, Dieudonne Kayitare, and Dr Emmanuel Gasakure, personal physician to the Rwandan President, died in mysterious circumstances. In Burundi, thousands took to the streets of Bujumbura, the capital city, to protest the arrest of a leading journalist, Bob Rugurika, who was then released on bail.

To a casual observer, Burundi and Rwanda are twins sharing several features. First, the two are among the world's poorest nations. The percentage of the population living on less than $2.00 a day in Rwanda was 82.3 percent in 2011, according to the World Bank Group (WBG). Comparative data for Burundi is unavailable, but another indicator tells us that it is even poorer than its twin. Burundi's GDP per capita of $267 is much smaller than Rwanda's at $638. Second, the two countries have same ethnic composition, comprising Hutu, Tutsi and Twa and are therefore linguistically identical. Third, they are both highly unstable beset by ethinic-based political upheavals that periodically result in extreme violence. Fourth, the two countries are led by former rebel leaders who came to power through a 'bush war.'

A deeper analysis, however, reveals significant differences which suggest that Burundi has better prospects for overcoming "bigmanism" or big man politics whereby a nation-state is controlled by a single totalitarian. I highlight three aspects, namely, the ethnicity question, role of civil society, and political competition for high office.

The political environment in present Rwanda does not permit what one might call an honest history -- ethnicity being the heart of the matter. This can only happen when Rwandans engage, debate, and think for themselves on contested histories of pre-independence, post-colonial, and the recent past including genocide and its aftermath. In contemporary Rwanda led by President Paul Kagame indirectly and directly since 1994, discussing these issues, especially the role of ethnicity is taboo and illegal; frank and open debate is simply out of the question. All Rwandans are said to be one stock -- Rwandan. Accordingly anyone who dares discuss ethnicity is engaging in a crime of "divisionism" and subject to heavy punishment.

Across the border in Burundi, the subject of ethnicity is neither taboo nor illegal. Far from being suppressed, it is in the open including humour in which Burundians poke fun at their past and present. Rwandans visiting Burundi are taken aback by self-deprecating humour about topics that would land them in jail back home -- plain questions such as who holds what powerful positions in government among ethnic groups.

The sharp difference between Burundi and Rwanda is also evident in the nature and role of civil society. In August 2014, the last independent civil society organisation in Rwanda came to a sudden and sad end. The leadership of the Rwandan League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights (LIPRODHOR) was ousted by government, which installed a docile clique to the Rwanda regime's liking. The Rwanda National Police arrested Daniel Uwimana and Evariste Nsabayezu, senior officials of the ousted LIPRODHOR executive board for allegedly "forging and use of counterfeit documents." Other executive board members fled into exile abroad.

Contrast this with the arrest of a journalist by Burundian authorities in connection with the murder of three Italian nuns. The journalist, Bob Rugurika, was charged with "complicity" after he refused to identify the man who confessed to the crime. Rugurika's arrest sparked protests by civil rights activists and fellow journalists, who accused the government of intimidating political challengers and the media ahead of elections in May and June. On Feb. 19, 2015, thousands took to the streets in celebration through the Burundi capital, Bujumbura, after Rugurika was released on bail. The difference between Burundi and Rwanda in this regard is like night and day.

Then there is the matter of political competition for higher office. There is no such a thing in Rwanda. Members of genuine opposition are either in prison, exile or mysteriously die in and outside Rwanda. Leader of the Unified Democratic Forces party, Victoire Ingabire, who was barred from running for presidency in 2010 is in prison. André Kagwa Rwisereka who was vice-chairman of the Democratic Green Party of Rwanda, was found murdered and partially beheaded in July 2010. Patrick Karegeya, a founding member of Rwandan National Congress was murdered in Johannesburg, South Africa on January 1, 2014. In this political environment, the incumbent president Paul Kagame wins elections by high percentage -- he won by 93 per cent in 2010, down from 95 percent in 2003.

In the case of Burundi besides the National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy led by the incumbent president Pierre Nkurunziza, six other parties are represented in the Burundian parliament. During the 2010 presidential elections, however, Nkurunziza was the only candidate after all opposition candidates boycotted the poll alleging fraud. The opposition, however, is active and vocal and not easily intimidated as in Rwanda.

Burundi is hardly a model for democracy and stability. Far from it. But in sharp contrast to Rwanda, we see coordinated public action among its civil society organizations in protecting democratic gains, however modest. The importance of civil society organizations in Burundi is precisely the mediating role they are playing, located as they are between the individual and the state thus countering the excesses of the latter. In Rwanda we see the reverse. There, we see neither a genuine opposition nor organised civil society. Typical of bigmansism there is only one strong man left standing -- the President of the Republic. The mysterious deaths of individuals who previously served him is a further troubling characteristic of big man politics in which the rule of law is a questionable proposition.


  • AP Photo/Ben Curtis
    Performers re-enact the events at a public ceremony to mark the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, at Amahoro stadium in Kigali, Rwanda.
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    An emotionally distraught woman is carried out of Amahoro Stadium during the 20th anniversary commemoration
  • Sorrowful wails and uncontrollable sobs resounded Monday as thousands of Rwandans packed the country's main sports stadium to mark the 20th anniversary of the beginning of a devastating 100-day genocide.
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    Performers enter Amahoro Stadium during the commemoration
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    A woman consoles Bizimana Emmanuel, 22, during the 20th anniversary commemoration
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    Thousands of Rwandans and global leaders, past and present, joined together at the stadium to remember the country's 1994 genocide
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    More than 800,000 ethnic Tutsi and moderate Hutus were slaughtered over a 100 day period.
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    Dozens of people had to be carried from the stands after becoming hysterical over the disturbing scenes
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    Ushers carry a screaming and emotionally distraught woman out of Amahoro Stadium during the 20th anniversary commemoration of the 1994 genocide
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    A woman is helped out of the the Amahoro stadium, in Kigali
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    The anniversary has been marked by reminders of festering anger with a major diplomatic row breaking out over renewed allegations of French complicity in the genocide.
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    A woman is helped out of the Amahoro stadium
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    Men help carry a crying woman at the Amahoro stadium, with many survivors overcome with grief as they relived the trauma of the massacres that left nearly a million dead
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    Rwandans gather under a banner, with writing in Kinyarwanda reading 'Remember 20', at the Amahoro stadium in Kigali