Steps to Impunity: A Burundi Story

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Comprising the Twa, Hutu and Tutsi peoples, who coexist contentiously, Burundi is located in east central Africa....

Submitted: November 13, 2015

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Submitted: November 13, 2015



Steps to Impunity: A Burundi Story


Nwachukwu Lawson Luke

Comprising the Twa, Hutu and Tutsi peoples, who coexist contentiously, Burundi is located in east central Africa. It occupies an area of 27834 square kilometers with an estimated 10 million hungry, desperate, almost illiterate population. It gained its independence from Belgium in 1962, but civil wars, genocides and military coups have all ensured the forceful emigration of young, promising Burundians, something also referred to as Brain Drain. There is occasional violent challenge of legitimate government, a discomforting ritual, widespread corruption, and consequently, poor standards of living, making it one of the poorest countries in Africa.


Landlocked With Notorious Neighbors

Bordered to the north by Rwanda, to the east and south by Tanzania, and to the west by Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi is a landlocked country. If a country is landlocked, it means it is surrounded everywhere by neighboring countries, depriving it of coastal access, and consequently making it rely on the transport infrastructures of these neighbors for access to overseas markets. Being landlocked is bad enough, but to be landlocked with bad neighbors can be depressing.

Situated in western and central Europe, Switzerland is also a landlocked country. It is surrounded by five neighboring countries: Austria and Liechtenstein to the east, France to the west, Italy to the south, and Germany to the north. But the bewildering observation is that Switzerland is rich and Burundi is poor. One of the reasons is that Switzerland’s coastal access is dependent upon German and Italian infrastructures, which are more developed than those of Burundi’s neighbors. Burundi’s access to sea is dependent upon Congolese and Rwandan transport infrastructures. Rwanda itself is a landlocked country and has a notorious history of political violence and genocide; DR Congo’s blood-letting spree is sufficiently pronounced, and Tanzania itself is a politically unstable country. DR Congo has had deadly confrontations with Rwandan Hutu rebels, and Tanzania and Rwanda have not been on the best of terms. Burundi, like the King of Pop screamed, is caught in the middle: Rwanda’s history of violence is too pronounced to get over with, let alone catch the attention of foreign investors, and DR Congo’s transport infrastructure is too poor to be of any profitable use to Burundi.

Could this be why, despite being resource-rich—in gold, uranium, copper, etc—Burundi still has an underdeveloped manufacturing sector? As Paul Collier noted:

“If you are landlocked with poor transport links to the coast that are beyond your control, it is very difficult to integrate into global markets for any product that requires a lot of transport, so forget manufacturing—which to date has been the most reliable driver of rapid development.”[1]

The political conflicts in Tanzania, Rwanda and DR Congo are not only impediments to Burundi’s economy, but also these notorious neighbors themselves are poor markets.

Burundi’s import commodities are construction materials, food and fuel, and export commodities are mostly coffee, tea, sugar, cotton, and hides. Notwithstanding, there is a severe trade imbalance: the country imports more than it exports. Its export earnings are largely dependent on weather conditions as well as international coffee and tea prices, making it resort to dependence on aid donations, which accounts for 42 per cent of its national income.



Once Upon a Violence

The civil war in Burundi, which lasted from 1993 to 2005, was the result of age old politically-motivated ethnic struggle between the Hutu and Tutsi peoples. In October 21, 1993, Burundi’s first democratically elected President Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu, alongside six members of his cabinet, was targeted and murdered by Tutsi rebels. Violence ensued between the two tribes.

In 1994 Cyprien Ntayamira, a Hutu successor, was ‘coincidentally’ killed in the same plane crash with Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana. This act marked the beginning of the Rwandan genocide, and intensified violence and civil unrest in already volatile Burundi. An agreement between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority was eventually put in place, but in 1996 the agreement was breached by a Tutsi-led military coup. Violence escalated, about 300,000 refugees fled to neighboring Tanzania.

In April 2015, President Pierre Nkurunziza announced that he would be seeking a third term in office, in defiance of the constitution which restrains a president from seeking a third term in office. This announcement resulted in protests and violence: deadly clashes between police and protesters left dozens dead and scores injured. The government clamped down on protests and oppositions, making massive arrests, shutting down radio stations and media houses.

On May 13, 2015, General Godefroid Niyombareh announced a coup that resulted in celebrations on the streets of the capital Bajumbura. He explained that President Nkurunziza’s bid for a third term violated the country’s constitution:

“The masses have decided to take into their own hands the destiny of the nation to remedy this unconstitutional environment in which Burundi has been plunged.

The masses vigorously and tenaciously reject President Nkurunziza’s third term mandate,” he said in a radio broadcast.

But celebrations were shortlived when the government announced that it was still in power. Despite massive protests and calls for boycott by the opposition, the controversial presidential elections were held on July 21, 2015, and July 24, 2015, Nkurunziza was declared winner of the election. Nkurunziza was also the winner and sole candidate of the 2005 election that brought him to power.


How to be a Rancorous Elite

In poor, economically distressed countries, such as Burundi, power is a major source of income and wealth. In a country where wages are low and the standard of living unbearable, where arable lands are burdened by overgrazing and endless cultivations, to leave power would mean to return to poverty, and nobody likes that. Actually nobody wants that.

If you are in power, you can do and undo policies, rewrite them, make them work in your favor. You can siphon tax payers’ money, for instance, to fund selfish vanities, you can privatize government parastatals and turn them into money making ventures. You can ask yourself, “Which is more profitable? To build a government owned health center for people in desperate need of medical care, or to just erect a private one and value it seven times that of the public?” That’s right: build the private one and value it for shekels and silver worth more than thirty.

You can also undo the constitution that brought you to power, rewriting it to ensure your political dynasty, and to make sure that your unborn grandchildren all have accounts and shares in overseas banks.

You would do notorious things. You would ban the payment of dowries, like Jean-Bedel Bokassa of Central African Republic did, because you wouldn’t want any hindrance to your sensuality. You would ban political parties and imprison opposition leaders. Educated and enlightened people are major threats to your indiscreet motives and illogical policies, the better to kill them off, the way Tutsi rebels rounded up the literates in Burundi and shot them in the back of the head.[2] Anyone who protests, like the children in Central Africa Republic, who threw rocks at Jean-Bedel’s Rolls Royce in protest of being forced to pay exorbitant sums for school uniforms produced by his wife’s factory, is as good as dead.

You would bribe and be bribed. Contracts will not be awarded to the most competent, but to the highest briber. You would make the most use of your kairos moment and like the scriptural fool, you would exclaim: “Eat and Rest my soul! Thou hast much goods laid up for many years; take thine ease, eat, drink, and be merry!”[3]

You wouldn’t make logical statements, because your actions clearly don’t make sense. Instead, you’ll introduce religious sentiments, a predestination ideology, the way President Mugabe did in Zimbabwe, that you have been chosen by god to rule the people for as long He wills. And how dare mere mortals challenge the immortal’s decision? The whole world is His and He gives it to whosoever He wills.

In 1980, when Zimbabwe got its independence, Robert Mugabe became its first prime minister, and in 1987, he was elected president. 29 years later, Mugabe, 91, is still president.

In 2000, the former freedom fighter[4] suffered his first electoral defeat, but he resorted to violence to stay in power. Some eight years later he said: “If you lose an election and are rejected by the people, it’s time to leave politics.” But after losing the 2008 presidential election to Morgan Tsvangira, Mugabe didn’t leave politics; instead he declared that only god could remove him from office. And it somehow makes logical sense—what is obtained by force needs be sustained by force.

In 2013, President Mugabe was asked by a New York Times reporter if he plans on running for the 2018 presidential elections, to which he replied: “Why do you want to know my secret?” But it is no secret that Zimbabwe has a struggling economy, as is common with politically unstable states; it is no secret that 95 per cent of its population are unemployed; it is no secret that investors have fled the country, fearing that their businesses might be seized next; it is no secret that banks have collapsed; that despite arrogating good intentions to land seizures, its agricultural sector is failing; that there is prevalence of famine, disease and hunger.

Grand pa has tried it all—he has killed, maimed, imprisoned, threatened, seized farmlands—all to horror and futility. He is yet to try stepping down, and maybe we should remind him of this secret. And not only him, but also ‘king’ Yoweri Museveni of Uganda (25 years), ‘king’ Paul Biya of Cameroun (29 years), ‘King’ Jose Eduardo Dos Santos of Angola (32 years), ‘king’ Teodoro Obiang Nguema of Equatorial Guinea (32 years). Need we remind rookie Pierre Nkurunziza?

In Summary

The UN, AU and ECOWAS should be more committed to sanctioning leaders who upon nearing the completion of their tenure find fault with the constitution that brought them to power, and dump them like a bad habit, than they should be in mustering armies for peacekeeping missions that clearly preventable in the first place. This would save both lives and money. Risks of political violence would be mitigated it these bodies insist that Presidents should adhere strictly to the stipulations of their constitutions. Political dynasty must be frowned upon, and until this is done, there will always be a depressing debate of good coup versus bad coup.


[1] Paul Collier, The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, p. 55.

[2] Stanley Meisler, Rwanda and Burundi, The Atlantic Online,, Accessed: 13 September 2015.

[3] Luke xii: 19.

[4] President Mugabe was instrumental in Zimbabwe’s struggle for independence in the 80s, and this could be one of the reasons why most African leaders are reluctant to oppose him.




Burundi Natural Resources. (2015, June 30). Retrieved October 11, 2015, from Index Mundi:

Collier, P. (2008). The Bottom Billion: Why the Poorest Countries Are Failing and What Can Be Done About It. New York: Oxford University Press.

Meisler, S. (1973, September). Rwanda and Burundi. The Atlantic Monthly , 6-16.

My Continent Africa. (n.d.). Retrieved September 13, 2015, from Presidents for Life:

United Nations . (2008). The United Nations Today. New York: United Nations Department of Public Information.





© Copyright 2018 Lawson Luke. All rights reserved.

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