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Burundi and Rwanda at 53: what sets the conjoined twins apart

More than 100,000 people have fled Burundi since violence erupted in April. Reuters/Thomas Mukoya

Rwanda and Burundi have historically been considered conjoined twins given their identical ethnic and social make-up. They have also cut almost similar political paths, characterised by some of the most brutal human catastrophes of modern times.

In 1994, both were rocked by the death of their respective presidents. This was followed by a genocide in Rwanda that claimed more than 800,000 lives. But both emerged from the abyss by embarking on transitional processes that were expected to lead to a democratic dispensation, development and political stability.

Both countries have just marked the 53rd anniversary of their independence from Belgium. Independence was characterised by ethnic tension and fissures that coloured their post-independence histories. But both countries still harbour a grievance that their status as independent nations is not respected and continue to yearn for meaningful independence.

Rwanda perceives that it is patronised by the West. Burundi resents the sharp criticism of most Western countries over President Pierre Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term. In 2015, does the “conjoined twins” label still hold?


Rwanda and Burundi are members of the East African Community, a grouping of formerly British colonies. Rwanda was also admitted into the Commonwealth. It is one of the very few countries in the groupings without a British colonial legacy.

Their membership in the East African Community was not only set to integrate these two small neighbours – they are both roughly the size of Haiti – into this mutually beneficial regional grouping, but it was equally crucial to their sociopolitical socialisation and economic development.

Since then, they have benefited from peer support and oversight. Rwanda’s economic fortunes have risen exponentially – it was voted one of the best and least corrupt countries to do business in the region.

Paul Kagame had led Rwanda to stability and economic growth. Reuters/Tiksa Negeri

However, Burundi’s fortunes haven’t fared as well. At least 6.3 million people – or almost 70% of its citizens – still live below the poverty line. The country is also the most corrupt in the East African Community.

Bad habits persist

Until not long ago, Burundi and Rwanda were judged to be on a firm path of deepening democracy. Burundi was holding fairly steady with its “quota democracy” plan. It stipulated that 60% of elected parliamentary seats should go to Hutus, who make up 85% of the population, and the remaining 40% to Tutsis. At least 30 of the seats were reserved for women.

Rwanda banished ethnic identity-based politics, and holds periodic and relatively credible elections.

However, critics have increasingly argued that both countries have since veered off the path of democratic good practice and strengthened authoritarian tendencies. Rwandan President Paul Kagame is being seen as increasingly authoritarian and often ruthless with opposition and critics alike. This has led to alleged assassinations and disappearances, and the muzzling of independent press.

For Burundi, the carefully negotiated transition and nascent democracy has simply come unstuck at the seams. Nkurunziza has cracked down on critics, the opposition and the independent press, with ever-more dwindling space for political compromise and moderation.

Burundi held a controversial local and parliamentary elections last week. The results have yet to be announced. They were boycotted by a majority of the opposition. The elections were also sharply criticised by the United Nations, the African Union, Western donors and regional powers. The presidential election is set for next week, to be followed by the senatorial election on July 24.

During this electoral cycle, Burundi has been hit by sharp political violence, refugee flows, assassinations and the flight of the country’s vice president, president of the national assembly and a host of national electoral commissioners, among others. All this was sparked by Nkurunziza’s insistence on running for a third term. This move is strenuously opposed by a broad section of civil society, including the influential Catholic Church and the opposition.

Despite its socioeconomic success, Rwanda too finds itself on the defensive against its perceived detractors following two crucial developments largely symptomatic of ongoing unease. It is still plagued by alleged excesses by the governing Rwanda Patriotic Front during the 1994 genocide. Its intelligence chief, General Karenzi Karake, was recently arrested by the UK government on a visit to London. This was followed by a quick remonstration from Kagame, who cast the arrest as political, flawed, and a vestige of colonial mentality, slavery and bigotry.

Equally, with Kagame’s tenure coming to an end in 2017, there have been increased political campaigns to engineer a rollback of constitutional term limits to allow him to stand again in 2017. Following criticism of this perceived unwillingness to step aside, he has said that Rwandans would:

… decide on what we want to become – not Spain, UK or France.

A tale of two presidents

The chorus of criticism against Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term from the opposition, civil society and senior political and judicial personalities internally and globally warn of a toxic environment which many believe is dragging Burundi closer to the precipice. The failed coup and the subsequent violence – which is threatening to escalate – point to a vulnerable presidency.

Kagame – who had strenuously dismissed the possibility of changing the constitution to stay on beyond 2017 – has changed his tune. He argued that it is the people’s interests that dictate what is to be done with the set rules of the political game. As such, a carefully choreographed process that has seen more than two million – or 17% of the population – petition to call for a referendum to repel the constitutional term limits has gained significant traction.

Clearly, Rwanda cannot go the same way as Burundi. Kagame still enjoys a degree of political support internationally due to his role in pulling Rwanda out of its ashes. But, significantly, there is no formidable domestic opposition and civil society that can harness any meaningful opposition to him – unlike in Burundi.

Reflecting on the 53 years of independence, one wonders if the Rwandan and Burundi citizens of 1962 would today be happy with the journey thus far travelled.

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