Burundi, which celebrated 60 years of independence on July 1, 2022, is considered the poorest country on the planet in terms of GDP per capita. This must be understood in the light of a history punctuated by political upheavals. Until 1996, the country lived in a rhythm of coups, massacres and political assassinations – before plunging into a long civil war.
In 2005, peace was finally restored. However, in 2015, the country returned to authoritarian rule. Since then, the UN has noted progress but continues to condemn the political violence plaguing the country.
How did Burundi come to this? Why is change coming so slowly?
For more than 40 years, I have studied the politics and economics surrounding the Great Lakes region, including the relationship between governance and poverty. The countries that make up the region are Burundi, Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Uganda. , Democratic Republic of Congo and Uganda. I believe that the end of the Belgian and British colonial empires disrupted the political, economic and social framework of the two nations formed from the former colonial entity of Rwanda-Urundi.
Modern Rwanda and Burundi served as reservoirs of labor to exploit the wealth of the vast agricultural and mining areas of the Belgian Congo to the west and the British colonies to the east. After gaining independence in 1962, they turned into their own borders and became small, overpopulated, landlocked microstates.
Burundi is a country familiar with various military regimes since independence. These regimes managed to appropriate state resources, while ordinary citizens – mostly rural farmers – bore the brunt of the civil war.
The rift between the military elite and the “mountain people,” as rural farmers are commonly called, runs deeper than ethnic and regional differences. The peasantry still provides almost all the resources of the party-state. But most decisions on agrarian policy are made without consultation, including at the grassroots level, where party delegates, often peasants, follow orders.
The state has proven itself as an exceptional economic operator. Program of civil servants and party personnel and direct investment. Common people are mostly powerless.
Nkurunziza’s missed opportunity
After a gradual return to peace nearly 20 years ago, Pierre Nkurunziza was elected president in 2005. Nkurunziza, who came from the majority Hutu ethnic group, ended 25 years of pro-Tutsi military regimes. The Tutsi minority makes up 14% of the population, and the Hutus make up 85%. In the next five years, the president and his party – the National Council for the Defense of Democracy – Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD) – went to consolidate power.
Hopes for stability rose in the next election in 2010. For the first time in the country’s history, voters were asked to vote at the end of the regular election cycle. The CNDD-FDD won another mandate thanks to a divided opposition and the charismatic personality of the incumbent president, who enjoyed massive rural support.
A party that had succeeded in reconciling ethnic differences and uniting the armed forces with former rebels now had a strong national mandate.
Nkurunziza, without objection, concentrated power in his hands under the conditions of a de facto one-party state. A youth militia loyal to his party monitored dissent among the local population and neutralized any organized opposition. But the mood quickly soured when Nkurunziza sought a “third term” in the 2015 elections, contrary to the constitution.
The popular protest was immediate and intensified despite the mobilization of the police. A few weeks later, a failed military coup exposed divisions within the armed forces. Violent repression followed, as a result of which freedom of expression and independent media were destroyed.
In July 2015, after elections that were “not free and not credible”, according to the UN, the CNDD-FDD exceeded a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly.
Nkurunziza’s victory was Burundi’s defeat. Against the backdrop of repression against opponents, the country’s economy slowed down, foreign capital fled, and the infrastructure was destroyed. There was a robbery of state resources and a sharp reduction in social benefits.
At the end of his third term, CNDD-FDD party leaders were happy to see the back of the “eternal supreme leader” who had become a threat.
Electoral salvation of 2020
Burundi’s GDP suffered greatly during the civil war that ended in 2005. It grew for ten years from 2005 to 2014. After the political crisis provoked by Nkurunziza in 2015, the economy fell sharply again. In 2013 and 2014, it was ranked second in the ranking of the poorest countries in the world, in 2015 it was ranked among the poorest and has remained there ever since. The UN’s Human Development Index, which measures longevity, education and inequality, also shows this deterioration. Burundi was ranked 180th in 2015, dropping to 185th in 2019 and 2020.
Thus, on almost all socio-economic indicators, Burundi scores among the lowest on the planet, mainly due to conflict and elite corruption.
A failed coup in May 2015 upset the delicate balance in which the army – including former rebels – and the police were jointly ruled. Pro-Nkurunziza elements in the army who crushed the coup sensed an opportunity for enrichment to match the fate of their older Tutsi colleagues and military school graduates.
Discreet or hidden until now, this “financial catch-up” has turned into an open competition for personal enrichment according to everyone’s ability.
In May 2020, General Evariste Ndayishimiye, a wise and withdrawn man, became the new president. Shortly thereafter, Nkurunziza officially died of COVID-19, a disease he had always underestimated. Burundi, on the other hand, continues to suffer from the consequences of Nkurunziza’s political legacy.
The struggle between elites
Having survived since independence all the forms of division that can be used by authoritarian regimes, the “mountain people” now know that their fate is the result of a struggle between elites for the capture of national resources.
Only re-appropriating the state to make it legitimate again in the eyes of the population can free up resources for their purposes. This means that the peasants are emancipating themselves from a co-opted administrative and economic bureaucracy that has forcibly appropriated power and wealth, first to the benefit of the Tutsi and then to the Hutu. Burundians must assert themselves through free and credible elections as self-organizing citizens responsible for the future of a democratic country.
Andre GuichauxUniversity Professor, University of Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne
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