REGIONAL POLITICS

False twins: Decisions that made Rwanda-Burundi complete opposites

On July 1, Rwanda and Burundi would have celebrated their independence but only the latter marked the day

In Summary

• The two neighbouring countries share the same history and are culturally near-identical.

• But in what would have been the marking of their 57th anniversary, there is much to the history of the two countries that has led to very different socio-political outcomes. 

Deputy President William Ruto with Rwanda President Paul Kagame,Uganda's Yoweri Museveni and Burundi Pierre Nkurunziza at the 23rd Ordinary Summit of the African Union in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea
Deputy President William Ruto with Rwanda President Paul Kagame,Uganda's Yoweri Museveni and Burundi Pierre Nkurunziza at the 23rd Ordinary Summit of the African Union in Malabo, Equatorial Guinea
Image: DPPS

Independence is the day many African countries celebrate ending colonial rule.  But that is barely true in some countries.

On July 1, Rwanda and Burundi would have celebrated their independence but only the latter marked the day. For Rwanda, it is a rather complicated history: July 4 or the Liberation Day is an even more important day for the Ruling Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF).

The two neighbouring countries share the same history and are culturally near-identical.  At first glance, there’s little that tells the countries apart. So similar that, the 1959-1961 independence drive was led by led by cross-communal UPRONA Party of Burundi's Prince Louis Rwagasore, who became the first Prime Minister of Ruanda- Urundi before his assassination.

But in what would have been the marking of their 57th anniversary, there is much to the history of the two countries that has led to very different socio-political outcomes. 

For Rwanda under RPF, already with a tag of an African success story, July 4 was the time to celebrate the end of the genocide as well as remembering the fate that befell the minority Tusti just before independence.  

The July 4 celebrations have prompted accusations from the opposition that this national trauma has been exploited to promote President Paul Kagame and the RPF. 

However, are the histories of independence with complex legacies something worth celebrating?

For Burundi, it is a different story. July 1 is an occasion President Pierre Nkurinziza, a demagogue obsessed with his football skills, can't miss. So drunk with power that he sees himself as a deity, christening himself the country’s ‘eternal supreme guide’.  

He has controversially renamed the country's national landmarks prompting similar accusations that the move is designed to reflect the historical contribution of the majority Hutu ethnic group.  

Others are seeing the move differently. In fact, more important landmarks such as naming the State House toNtare Rushatsi (Burundi's first King) house has added to speculation that he sees himself as King. 

He has moved the capital from Bujumbura to Gitega — the former kingdom's headquarters — with the former kingdom's emblem all over the new Ntare Rushatsi house, and a constitution in place to allow the restoration of the monarchy. This has added to the speculation that he plans to stay on in some capacity. 

Nkurunziza may be influenced by the fact that succession to the kingdom was not well established in Burundi. He sees himself as a new “royal” as claims to the kingship was always negotiated among the prominent clans. The interesting part is Nkurunziza is just a former rebel leader handed power.

The tragedy of the genocides against the Tutsis (1959 and 1994) are linked ideologically to democracy. Based on the majority and numbers, it means the winner takes all. It is in this spirit that the Belgians switched allegiance from the minority Tutsi to the majority Hutu to maintain control over post-independence Rwanda.  Soon, the new Hutu elites unleashed violence against the Tutsis.

First, the “Hutu Revolution” of 1959 in Rwanda resulted in the influx of 200,000 Tutsi refugees into Burundi by 1965.

In 1961, the Tutsi monarchy was abolished and Rwanda became a republic, gaining independence from Belgium in 1962. Parmehutu (a Hutu nationalist party) leader Grégoire Kayibanda was elected President and under his rule, more Tutsis left the country. Those who remained faced continuing state-sponsored violence and institutionalised discrimination.

The significant degree of similarity between  Burundi and Rwanda should not blur some important historical differences. Rwanda was much more centralised than Burundi, where the king in Burundi delegated power to regional chiefs (mutwale), mostly Tutsi. Burundi was a more inclusive monarchy because a Mwami (King) had to appeal to both Hutu and Tutsi to prevail.

While the pre-independence struggle was between Hutu and Tutsi in Rwanda, in Burundi, it was between Tutsi ganwa families (royal clans). While the Tutsi in Rwanda were overthrown and persecuted at independence, the ruling elites — the two prominent ganwa families (either the Bezi or the Batare) — ruled with a degree of tolerance over the majority Hutu. However, there were constant feuds, assassinations, and coup d'etats.

In this sense, when Kagame and RPF defeated the genocidal government, they established control of the state and did not have to appeal to anyone. Nkurunziza and CNDD–FDD) never won the war: They came to power in a negotiated settlement inside an air-conditioned conference room. It is thus hard for Nkurunziza to claim legitimacy and control.  

As it is commonly said, Burundi and Rwanda are false twins who, when one sneezes, the other catches a cold.

Events in Rwanda tend to influence politics in Burundi, First, the “Hutu Revolution” of 1959 in Rwanda resulting in 200,000 Tutsi refugees by 1965 challenged the trust between the tribes' elites in Burundi. It elicited republican feelings and the fear of possible Tutsi hegemony from some Hutu. The assassination of Louis Rwagasore (the first Prime Minister who was a Tutsi) deepened divisions.

Despite heightened suspicion among Burundi’s ruling Tutsi elites wary of a similar fate, they used the language of national unity and development.  

What is interesting though is the post-independence asymmetrical shift.  While the Tutsi minority dominated the state apparatus in Burundi, it was the Hutu majority in Rwanda that called the shots. After the war and the genocide, Burundi National Council for the Defence of Democracy – Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD–FDD) under Nkurunziza (from 2005) is Hutu-dominated, while Rwanda Patriotic Front under Kagame is claimed to be Tutsi-dominated.

Twenty-five years after the fatal 1994 plane crash that killed the then Rwandan and Burundian presidents, we now have Kagame in Rwanda and Nkurunziza in Burundi.

Overshadowed by its more successful neighbour, Nkurunziza’s dismal record means that even when he decided to have a similar ‘enemy’ with Rwanda by banning the BBC for investigating atrocities, he still remained unpopular. He has now banned civil servants from talking to any international media. 

It is in the management of histories that Rwanda has come out on top rather than simply aid as some quarters may argue. Kagame’s ideological stance has been steadfast. 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. 

With tensions rising in the East Africa Community, Rwanda can afford to make decisive decisions and close its border in a feud with Uganda that they accuse of harbouring dissidents. 

When Nkurunziza makes similar accusations against Rwanda, he is quickly reminded that he did not mind neighbours intervening to break a deal that brought him to power or the member intervention that prevented a coup in 2015.

Unable to exert influence in the EAC, his application to join the Southern African Development Community was turned down, citing his failure to fulfill membership fees. It's not a lack of aid but the management of histories and appeal that make the difference in both countries.