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Burundi and Rwanda: a rivalry that lies at the heart of Great Lakes crises

A policewoman carries a Burundi flag during a protest against President Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term. Reuters/Goran Tomasevic

The end of two particularly bloody and dramatic civil wars saw a reversal of the political and ethnic dominance in Rwanda in 1994 and Burundi in 2004. This dominance had come into being at independence.

In Rwanda, the 1959 revolution overthrew the Tutsi monarchy and brought Hutu elites to power. Fifty-five years later, Tutsi refugees who had settled in Uganda led a rebellion and seized power in Kigali. In Burundi, 40 years of “Tutsi military regimes” ended when free multiparty elections resulted in the victory of the most important pro-Hutu movement in the armed rebellion.

Two radically different personalities emerged. Paul Kagame, former chief of intelligence services of the Ugandan rebel National Resistance Army, has become Rwanda’s only master. He managed this by pushing aside or eliminating all his fellow fighters of the 1990s.

Pierre Nkurunziza, on the other hand, never featured among the small circle of “generals” who waged Burundi’s war of liberation. But in the background of the political system of the party he led, the CNDD-FDD, he played a decisive role in keeping military chiefs’ rivalries and ambitions during the civil war under control. He then deftly developed his position of weakness within the CNDD-FDD into an asset. He cultivated the various contenders for leadership.

The rise to power of these two men is having a profound effect on the region, including efforts to end conflicts in the Great Lakes region. Rwanda and Burundi are tiny countries, but have managed to establish themselves as bulwarks to the region’s progress. That they are both run by “strong men” is highly relevant to these developments.

Rwanda’s helping hand

In 2005 Nkurunziza was presented as the presidential candidate by default. He was regarded by the population as approachable and simple. Leaders of neighbouring countries and foreign powers were reassured by his “civilian” profile.

At the same time the authorities in Rwanda were not in favour of former Burundian leader Pierre Buyoya and, by extension, the Burundian Armed Forces. This is primarily because they had refused to support the Rwanda Patriotic Front during the guerrilla war. Rwanda, with the RPF now in power, therefore financed Nkurunziza’s party’s electoral campaign. There were also regular consultations between the two countries’ “generals” on regional security issues such as the Interahamwe and respective opponents.

Rwandan investments in Burundi, already substantive, steadily increased. For Rwanda, coexistence with a CNDD-FDD majority and a “democratic” Burundi made sense because:

  • the other pro-Hutu guerrilla components were marginalised

  • the new “integrated” army maintained a strict balance between the ex-Burundian armed forces, that had been predominantly Tutsi, and the combatants of the ex-Hutu rebellions, and

  • the economic dependency of a badly managed country impoverished by ten years of war tilted regional trade in Rwanda’s favour and left a clear field for foreign capital and businessmen.

But this marriage of convenience was rocked in October 2013. Relations between the two countries changed profoundly. The fallout was triggered by the defeat of the M23 rebellion, a pro-Rwandan armed group active in eastern Congo. The defeat came at the hands of the South African and Tanzanian contingents of the United Nations stabilisation force. But Rwanda lashed out at Burundi. It accused its neighbour of being a safe haven for combatants whose presence in the Congo had justified Rwanda’s intervention until then.

This accusation weighed heavily on Burundi. It gave rise to sharp tensions that are at the origin of the current political hardening and repression against the opposition.

As friends quickly became foes, a very busy schedule of presidential elections was approaching in the region. Burundi was first followed by Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda and DRC. Like several of its neighbours, Burundi was confronted with the constitutional question of renewing an outgoing president’s mandate.

The regional crisis generated by Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term soon began to play out. The immediate crisis appeared at first to justify Rwanda’s decision to keep its distance from a regime that was discrediting itself. Various Burundian opponents were openly received in Rwanda.

But the situation changed dramatically when an attempt by some of the Burundian military high command to oust the president failed. It soon became clear that Nkurunziza would pursue his objective to the very end, whatever the cost.

Rwanda then committed a double mistake – as did a number of western embassies – by assuming that the Burundian crisis could be put down to purely personal ambitions and overestimating opponents’ operational capacities.

The assassination of a general close to Nkurunziza and a failed attempt to kill the army’s chief of staff marked the end of commando operations targeted at the regime’s senior dignitaries. This was followed by a massive and brutal mobilisation of the security forces and the ruling party’s youth organisations.

Competition between two authoritarian regimes

Burundi’s policy of strengthening its repressive apparatus has been increasingly evident. For the chiefs of intelligence and police this has been undertaken with the explicit objective of catching up in the shortest possible time with “Rwandan standards”. The ultimate aim is to ensure the symbiosis of intelligence services, police forces and local militia forces.

But the catching up does not stop there. It also extends to the denial of public freedoms and closure of almost all independent media. It also involves the dissolution of major civil society organisations, proscription of opposition parties and pervasive surveillance of the population.

Kagame now looks certain to remain in power until at least 2034. It also seems inconceivable that the regime in Burundi will be prepared to loosen its hold. It is certainly unlikely to tolerate full expression for its internal opposition, which it denounces as being supported by Rwanda.

The competition between the two authoritarian regimes has become a fact that, given the regional context, is here to last. It justifies the security policies and postpones the expression of democratic forces.

Crisis of authoritarianism

Burundian authorities used force to reinstate the Nkurunziza regime beyond its term, to change the constitution and secure a firm grip on the de facto single party CNDD-FDD. Regressive as it was, this only really aligned Burundi with the common political standards of most countries in the region.

Burundi’s obstinate refusal of any political openness reflects its view that the international community should accord it the same “understanding” extended to other countries in the region. In its view any other approach would amount to interference, intimidation or aggression.

The Great Lakes region has become the theatre of a number of large-scale crises. These range from politico-ethnic conflicts to secessionist movements, civil wars and genocide. There has also been external aggression and interference, foreign occupation and pillaging of mineral resources.

Funding the intervention and peacekeeping forces in the region constitutes one of the UN system’s most costly budget items.

The current turmoil is directly correlated to the system of governance specific to the region’s authoritarian regimes. It includes personalised power, de facto monopoly of representation and refusal of democratic change. Repressive apparatuses are on the rise. These include violent party militia groups and assassination squads, as well as restrictions on personal and political freedoms.


The strategy of increasing tension that both countries pursue today is based on radically uneven strengths. Rwanda has an obvious superiority in the military, diplomatic, political, economic and ideological domains.

The only thing the two heads of state are equal in is their determination to defeat their opponents.

President Kagame looks forward to Burundi’s economic and political collapse. This would enable him to consolidate his ambition of regional hegemony. It would also justify his hold on power as the archetype of a modernising political leader in a military-authoritarian state.

Across the way President Nkurunziza is stalling for time to tighten his control.

In a sense both protagonists have won a double victory. The first is that each has, apparently, succeeded in crushing political resistance and opposition.

The second is that they have imposed their own rivalry as a regional stake by obliging all neighbouring countries (and South Africa) to support – openly or implicitly – the cause of the one or the other. By doing this they have demonstrated that, although they are small countries, they are able to block resolutions to major conflicts in the Great Lakes region.

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