Lost in Rwanda's Shadow, Burundi Struggles On

The challenges facing Rwanda's "false twin" are also an opportunity to lead the global development agenda from behind, argues Katrin Wittig.
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November 27, 2013

I first traveled to Burundi, a tiny landlocked country in the heart of Africa, in May 2013 to conduct interviews for my PhD research. Burundi is often referred to as the ‘false twin’ of Rwanda, its neighbour to the north – both countries have the same ethnic make-up, speak similar languages, and share many cultural traditions, but their histories have played out quite differently. Despite the fact that Burundi too has suffered its share of ethnic-based violence, the country’s struggles are often hidden from view by the long shadow of Rwanda’s tragedy.

I embarked for Bujumbura International Airport with some mixed feelings, but plenty of excitement. The plane landed at 12:30 am, a time when embassy advisories suggest it is better to be at home, given the many impoverished bandits that go looting at night. Most of the streets I passed as my Burundian friend drove me to the little hotel that I was staying at during my first days were empty. It was only much later that I  discovered the busy nightlife of Boulevard de l’UPRONA, a stretch of the city packed with bars and clubs that serve as amusement for expats and Burundians alike.

The day after my arrival, we took a drive through the different neighbourhoods of ‘Buja’, as the capital is affectionately called. The Burundian capital lies between Lake Tanganyika and the legendary thousand hills that cover most of the Burundian territory. The hilly plateau, situated between 4,600 and 5,900 feet above sea level, gives Burundi its comparatively mild climate and its nickname as the ‘Switzerland of Africa’.


I continue to be amazed by how green the landscape is. The deeply religious Burundians often say that God has spoiled them when it comes to the mild climate and lush landscape, where palm and fig trees, eucalyptus and acacia joyfully grow along the lakeshores. Burundian farmers even sell delicious strawberries that are cultivated on the hills above the streets of Bujumbura.

Ten years have passed since the end of its civil war, but Burundi remains among the ten poorest countries in the world

The beautiful hilly green landscape stands in stark contrast to the persistently high poverty statistics of the country. Ten years have passed since the end of its civil war, but Burundi remains among the ten poorest countries in the world (as ranked by UNDP’s Human Development Index). Around 70 percent of the population lives in extreme poverty. According to the 2012 Global Hunger Index, Burundi has the highest percentage of undernourished people out of 120 countries ranked, with more than 50 percent of the population afflicted; some sources say the number could be as high as 73 percent. Every day, Burundian street kids – the number is estimated in the thousands – can be found begging for a little money to buy food on the streets of the capital.


While expats and a growing middle class of Burundians can enjoy cold beers in the beach clubs along Lake Tanganyika, many Burundians have to climb the hills to bring water containers to their neighbourhoods. The little clay brick houses that most Burundians call home contrast sharply with the gigantic hotel construction projects that many Burundian politicians have undertaken on the hillsides of the capital. That neighbourhood, where construction projects are springing up like mushrooms, is often referred to as the Arusha district (in reference to the peace accord that has been the blueprint for Burundi’s post-conflict transition) to underscore that the people constructing there have been the great winners of the peace dividend.

Burundians might be spoiled when it comes to their homeland’s flora and fauna, and some Burundians are undoubtedly enjoying their newfound prosperity. However, the country as a whole continues to lag far behind most of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). Why?

Two years before the deadline, Burundi is still far from reaching most of the MDGs

In 2000, the eight MDGs marked a historic decision, whereby 189 nations agreed on specific time-bound development targets. The targets range from halving extreme poverty to achieving universal primary education and reducing child and maternal mortality as well as establishing a global partnership for development. But with the expiration deadline just two years away, it is clear that progress has been very mixed and many goals will not be reached.

Chief among the countries where that disappointment is evident is Burundi, where the twin pressures of poverty and population growth overshadow tangible progress. Indeed, two years before the deadline, Burundi is still far from reaching most of the MDGs. According to the 2012 MDG Progress Index, Burundi has so far achieved only 1.5 out of the 8 MDGs, scoring it in the bottom 22 out of 142 countries ranked. However, presidentially mandated free health care for pregnant women and children under five, as well as free primary education, have been moderate successes, even though critics complain of long lines for treatment and lack of quality teaching.

Burundi has survived a number of horrific and bloody events since gaining independence in 1962. The German (1899-1916) and Belgian colonization (1916-1962) set in motion a profound transformation of Burundian society. Traditionally, clan-based divisions were the most salient cleavages, but the colonizers imposed their own simplistic interpretation based on the politicization of ethnic identities of Hutus and Tutsis.

After independence, the post-colonial elites continued instrumentalizing ethnic identity for their own political and economic advantages. For over 30 years, Burundi was ruled by military regimes, whose leaders exclusively came from the Tutsi clan Hima and the Southern province of Buriri. The oppression of the Hutu majority led to many uprisings and frequent cycles of ethnic-based violence culminating in 1993 in the decade-long civil war that devastated the country.

Since the end of the civil war, the Burundian government has made significant advances when it comes to making the country safer, reducing outbreaks of violence, and attempting to trivialize ethnic identities. Burundians have been starving for peace and are grateful for the relative security established by the rebel-turned government that has ruled the country since the first post-conflict elections in 2005. However, egregious human rights abuses, notably the extrajudicial executions following the last 2010 elections, are ongoing. As Burundi starts to prepare for the next 2015 elections, intimidation of opposition candidates and violent clashes between the youth members of political parties are already making headlines.

Despite the relative security that Burundi has known during its post-conflict decade, its development statistics remain at the bottom. Burundi is therefore one of the 50-plus countries chosen to have a voice in shaping the post-2015 UN development agenda. “The UN has changed its methods (…) The MDGs were mostly designed by experts in New York or elsewhere without consulting the beneficiaries of development aid (…) This was one of the motivating factors in organizing the national consultations,” said Déo Ngendakumana, Director of the Economic Development Institute (IDEC), a Burundian research center.

Over the last several months, the Burundian government, in cooperation with UNDP and IDEC, brought together 400 people from public administration, civil society, the private sector, religious organizations, and vulnerable groups (such as the disabled and young). Together, they debated the main development challenges for Burundi.

“Burundi has enormous needs, all of which need to be prioritized (…) Foremost we need a package of enabling conditions” said Déo Ngendakumana, Director of IDEC. “The political climate needs to be reassuring with regard to good governance and political leadership as well as security and rule of law. Then, there are more practical challenges, such as energy and infrastructure provision.”

He added, “these are the general issues that the participants have stressed during the national consultations. But these cannot obfuscate more sectorial problems, such as challenges in poverty reduction, gender equality, education, and health.”

Overpopulation is the most important development challenge confronting Burundi

According to numerous experts, overpopulation is the most important development challenge confronting Burundi. “Population dynamics are a very important issue because if the demographic growth continues at the current rate, this could have catastrophic effects (…) on all aspects of life,” said Balthazar Fengure, working for the Ministry of Communal Development.

Burundi, together with its neighbour Rwanda, is one of the most densely populated countries in Africa, with a current population of 10.5 million people. If the demographic growth rate continues, Burundi’s population will nearly double by 2025.


“The population is slowly realizing the problems caused by the high demographic pressure,” said Fengure. “In a country where close to 90 percent of the population depends on agriculture, we have certain provinces in which a family of more than five people needs to sustain itself on a property of only 0.4 hectares [about half the size of a soccer field], which is largely insufficient to feed that family.”

The government therefore aims to reduce the population growth rate from 2.4 to 2 percent. That would require Burundian women to give birth to an average of 3 children each by 2025; currently, the rate is 6.4 children per woman. But the government has not made much headway to meet these goals. The practice of family planning is only slowly increasing, and only around 20 percent of couples are using contraception.

The high population growth rate also causes enormous economic difficulties for Burundian young people. Even though reliable data is not readily available, youth unemployment is very high, especially in urban areas. Estimates vary between 18 to 50 percent of those aged between 18 and 35. Politically, many young people decry the necessity of becoming a member of the ruling party to be able to find a job.

“The population does not see the benefits of education and asks why should we send our children to school when people holding diplomas remain unemployed,” said Fengure. “The people insist that the state must invest much more in the creation of employment opportunities.”

Some important steps have been taken. The government has been praised for some of its regulatory reforms, making it much easier for new businesses to register and obtain permits. Indeed, according to the newly released 2014 World Bank Doing Business Report, Burundi ranks among the 50 economies making the biggest improvements between 2005 and 2012.

However, this stands in stark contrast to the continuing pandemic of corruption. According to  Transparency International, Burundi is among the most corrupt countries in the East African Community. This is one of the most important reasons for the reluctance of donors to invest in Burundi. While members of the East African Community receive on average $11.20 USD per inhabitant in direct foreign investment, Burundians receive only $0.04 USD per inhabitant. In addition, the country is heavily aid dependent – over half of the budget is financed by a small group of donors that face their own budget constraints following the global economic downturn.

According to a case study conducted by the North-South Institute, the government needs to step up its fight against corruption and increase domestic tax collection. However, despite President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement of a “zero tolerance” corruption policy, many Burundians lament “the sale of jobs, widespread corruption and pressure from politicians,” as outlined by a report of the International Crisis Group. In addition, the government’s inability to pay the salaries of its teachers and the scholarships of its university students – blamed by government officials on budgetary problems – has recently led to widespread strikes by the affected people to express their discontent.


Burundians sometimes ask if a benevolent dictator is a ‘necessary evil’ to achieve development

Burundians sometimes enviously look to Rwanda, whose government enforced an outstanding development model, after the Rwandan genocide, which has lifted over a million people out of poverty. Burundians sometimes ask if a benevolent dictator is a ‘necessary evil’ to achieve development. Other Burundians temper their envy for the Rwandan development model with skepticism rooted in their own historical experience. The Rwanda of today, where every notion of ethnicity has been banned from public discourse, reminds many Burundians of their own country under the military leadership of Bagaza in the 1980s, who followed the same oppressive style of prohibiting open discussion of ethnicity while promoting the country’s development. But since this model was only followed by another military coup and the Burundian civil war, many Burundians remain skeptical as to the durability of the Rwandan development model. As Burundians try to come to terms with their history of ethnic-based violence, they openly joke about the ethnic stereotypes that have ruled their discourses and collective imaginary for so long, something unimaginable in Rwanda.

A broad spectrum of development challenges clearly remain to be addressed in Burundi. But the participants consulted during the national consultations place highest importance on political leaders being accountable to the people – they view this as the key to sustainable development.

“It is thus through the stabilization of public, administrative and security institutions that Burundians hope for a better post-2015 development,” according to a summary report on the Burundian national consultations. “For this, the government has to make every effort to hold free and fair elections where winners and losers accede to the verdict of the polls. Similarly, the public administration must demonstrate a transformation towards a transparent administration that is accountable and merit-based.”

The 80-page report provides evidence of the need to tackle challenges in Burundi’s underlying conditions if current and future development goals are to be met. The report has been sent to UN Headquarters in New York, where it will hopefully inspire the discussions on the post-2015 development agenda and lead to more tangible improvements in the lives of Burundians in the near future.

Photos courtesy of the author and Iwacu, a local Burundian newspaper.