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The International Writers Magazine: Africa Now

Rwanda and Burundi: Twins in Central Africa
• Fergus Simpson
Towards the centre of the great African landmass lie the small landlocked nations of Rwanda and Burundi. Although they differ in a number of ways, the countries are often described as ‘twins’. But why is this?


Their landscapes are undulating, lusciously green and heavily cultivated. Although small in size, they are two of the most densely populated countries in Africa. Both speak complex Bantu languages: Kinyarwanda in Rwanda and Kirundi in Burundi. They suffered the pains of colonisation and ethnic antagonism at around the same time, culminating in the genocides against the Tutsi in 1994. Over the last twenty years, however, there is evidence to suggest that these ‘twins’ have begun to separate. Rwanda, having clawed itself out of a shallow grave, has become a Central African haven of peace and progress. Burundi, on the other hand, has experienced bouts of political upheaval and civil war, and remains one of the poorest – if not the poorest – countries in the world.

Colonial Legacies

Prior to colonisation, Rwanda and Burundi (or Urundi, as Burundi was then called) formed two powerful kingdoms. At the beginning of the twentieth century, the two territories were merged into German East Africa, along with Tanganyika (the mainland of present day Tanzania). After the defeat of Germany in World War 1, German East Africa was divided between Britain and Belgium under a League of Nations mandate. Britain took over Tanzania, and Rwanda and Burundi became part of Belgian’s colonial empire, known as Rwanda-Urundi.

The Germans and the Belgians could not help but notice the extent to which the inhabitants of Rwanda and Burundi were both linguistically and culturally homogenous; yet, at the same time, they noticed how the societies were split into three distinct ethnic groupings. The relationship between these groupings was intricate, characterised by a high degree of fluidity and flexibility: they were socially mixed, intermarriage was common and it was possible for individuals to move from Hutu to Tutsi or Tutsi to Hutu, if their social circumstances changed. The Germans did not recognise the complexities of these relationships, and proceeded to pigeonhole the peoples of Rwanda and Burundi into three categories: the Tutsi, the Hutu and the Twa.

The colonialists of Europe considered the Hutu and the Twa to be at an early stage of human evolution. The Tutsi, on the other hand, were perceived to be intelligent, self-disciplined, physically attractive and – this is key  – superior to the Hutu and the Twa. (Indeed, a Dominican priest once proposed that the Tutsi had originated from the Garden of Eden.)

 These stereotypes deeply affected the groups’ collective self-image and societal worth. They caused the ego of the Tutsi to inflate, and the ego of the Hutu to descend vertiginously into a pit of spiteful inferiority. Fundamentally, it produced a fissure within the bonds of society based on ethnic categorization. It was these early distinctions which acted as a spawning ground for the genocidal ideology that would come to define politics in Rwanda and Burundi in later years.

Post-colonial Mayhem

Belgium finally removed their colonial shackles on July 1st, 1962, when Rwanda and Burundi were granted their independence. In Burundi the Tutsi minority retained power after independence, whilst in Rwanda a Hutu-led revolution abolished the Tutsi monarchy. A politics of ethnicity had begun to infect the public consciousness in both nations.

The first significant massacre of the Tutsi populace in Rwanda occurred in 1959, after the death of the Tutsi king, Mwaami Rudahigwa. Subsequent massacres occurred in 1962, 1963, 1967 and 1972, causing a mass exodus of Rwandese Tutsis into neighbouring Uganda, Burundi, Tanzania and Zaire. It was not until April 7th, 1994, however, that a final solution to the Tutsi “problem” was implemented.

 In just one hundred days, between 800,000 and 1,000,000 members of Rwanda’s Tutsi and moderate Hutu community lost their lives in the most efficient episode of mass killing since the desolation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. There are simply no words to describe the horror unleashed in that fateful season of blood. Rwanda, along with Srebrenica, Auschwitz and Cambodia, will forever be remembered as a nadir of twentieth century human endeavour.

Burundi also experienced a cluster of massacres after independence, two of which have been described as genocide by the United Nations Security Council: the 1972 slaughter of Hutus by the predominantly Tutsi army, and the mass killings of Tutsis in 1994 by the wider Hutu population. It is estimated that over 100,000 people lost their lives during the violence of 1972 and a further 300,000 people in the massacres of 1994. The numbers killed in the Burundian genocides pale in comparison to Rwanda, but they are still colossal and deserve considerably more attention than they have received in the international press.

When Twins Grow Apart

As mentioned previously, Rwanda and Burundi share much common ground, in terms of their history, geography, culture and language. However, over the last two decades, these twins of Central Africa have begun to go their separate ways.

That fateful spring of 1994 saw the rotting of the Rwandan tree, and the dying of its leaves. The Habyarimana regime had been allowed to pump lies, fear and junkyard propaganda into society for over thirty years. And a class of lumpen, uneducated, losers was bred: ready and waiting for the occasion when saturnalia and frantic destruction made itself known. By the end of July 1994, Rwanda was lifeless, its people barely registering a pulse.

The Rwanda of 2014 could not be more different. The roads are now smooth, buildings are being constructed, business is thriving, the land is cultivated and (slowly but surely) people are lifting themselves out of poverty. According to the Government of Rwanda, the rate of GDP growth increased from 2.2% in 2003, to 7.8% in 2010, peaking at 11.5% in 2008. The Rwandan parliament is comprised of 64% females (a world record, by the way). Smartly dressed police officers and soldiers stand guard at intersections. The Internet connections are amongst the best this author has experienced in Africa. But, most importantly: many, many Rwandans are now happy.

Once a people characterised by tribal divisions, the Rwandans have demonstrated that they can transcend their differences and – regardless of the comparisons one could make – build a nation of which anyone would be proud. Over the one hundred days following April 7th, 2014, they will be commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi. This is understandably a very hard time for many Rwandans, especially for “survivors” of the genocide. However, it is also a time to celebrate the extraordinary journey of reconciliation and reconstruction upon which their country has embarked.           

Burundi, unfortunately, has not experienced the same level of success. In Rwanda the civil war stopped very soon after the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) – the administration currently holding office – overthrew the Hutu-power regime responsible for planning and perpetrating the genocide. Burundi, on the other hand, remained in a state of simmering civil war up until 2004.

The economy of Burundi has grown at a much slower rate than Rwanda’s as a result of this protracted conflict. According to the World Bank, in 2012, Burundi was the second poorest country in the world in terms of GDP per capita. Only the war-ravaged Democratic Republic of Congo stood further from the threshold of modernity.

The current president of Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, was democratically elected in early 2005 in what was generally considered to be a free and fair election. The country has since enjoyed some longer periods of relative peace. Over recent months, however, political tensions have escalated, leaving many observers concerned about the future of the country’s fragile peace and democracy. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), “Government officials, police, and the youth league of the ruling party have obstructed opposition party meetings and disrupted demonstrations and other activities.”

In March 2014, violence broke out between police forces and members of the opposition party, Movement for Solidarity and Democracy (MSD). In retaliation, the incumbent regime, the ruling National Council for the Defence of Democracy-Forces for the Defence of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), suspended the MSD for four months and charged 70 people with inciting and carrying out violent attacks. HRW assert that many of these arrests were arbitrary and unjustified. After just a single day of trials, 21 people were given life sentences and a further 26 people received a variety of other jail terms.

Recent developments have been even more concerning. Paul Debbie, a top UN official, was ordered to leave Burundi on April 17th this year after a report was leaked claiming that the CNDD-FDD had been providing arms to youth gangs ahead of the 2015 general election. According to the report, the Imbonerakure (Kirundi for “those who see far”) militia group, the youth wing of President Nkurunziza’s party, have received training and arms from the government. The similarities to the Interahamwe (Kinyarwanda for “those who stand together”) militia group equipped prior to the 1994 Rwandan genocide are extremely worrying.

The Burundian government deny the accusations. “I can assure you that any action to bring about war in general and to commit genocide in particular, cannot be tolerated,” said Prosper Bazombanza, the Vice President of Burundi, in a late-night radio interview. He demanded that the UN either retract the report or provide substantive evidence in support of its claims. Nonetheless, the Burundian government has refused a UN call for an independent investigation into the report’s accusations.

Burundi has traditionally taken pride in a strong civil society and an independent media. The CNDD-FDD is doing its best to remove these freedoms. If Mr Debbie’s suspicions prove correct, it seems they are willing to achieve this goal through the most depraved of means: by arming and training civilian death squads. The Government of Burundi has tried and failed to silence the voices of dissent before, although this does appear to be their most determined effort yet. As Rwandans remember, unite and renew during the Kwibuka 20 commemoration ceremonies, is it possible that Burundi is at risk of regressing back into the chaos of twenty years ago?

The histories of Rwanda and Burundi were inextricably linked for many hundreds of years: their verdant topographies are barely distinguishable from one another; Kinyarwanda and Kirundu, their respective languages, share more commonalities than differences; both were colonised by the Germans and the Belgians; they celebrated independence together in 1962; and, finally, the two countries found themselves at the brink of total annihilation in 1994.

Over the proceeding two decades, these twins of Central Africa have trodden different paths. Rwanda has begun to put a past of tribalism and mass slaughter behind it, in favour of cosmopolitism and economic growth. Burundi, disappointingly, seems to be taking more steps backward than forward. The government is clamping down on dissent, arresting opponents on trumped-up charges, thus threatening Burundi’s hard-won democracy ahead of the 2015 elections. It will take more than luck to stop this beautiful country joining South Sudan and the Central African Republic on the list of failing African states. It will, if Rwanda has taught us anything, take time, energy and resources. But then again, if Rwanda has taught us one thing, it will be well worth our while.

Kigali, 6th June 2014           

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