Burundi: Defence, diplomacy and the missing development link

Yet another Burundi coup attempt, the tenth since independence in July 1962, illustrates the challenges of building peace and instilling governance in poor, divided societies. Patterns of local hatred have defined the region’s politics for more than fifty years. While the minority Tutsi are generally seen as the victims in neighbouring Rwanda, in Burundi the Tutsi-controlled army was responsible for perpetrating regular atrocities against the majority Hutu. Tutsis effectively ruled Burundi from independence until the election of a Hutu government in 2005. In Rwanda, governments espousing a Hutu-majoritarian ideology dominated politics from independence in 1962, conducting regular massacres of the Tutsi, culminating in the 1994 genocide.

Against the pale of Rwanda’s 1994 event, it is sometimes forgotten that Burundi suffered a massive trauma just the previous year. Indeed, the mass killings of Hutus by the largely Tutsi army in 1972 and the 1993 slaughter of Tutsis by the Hutu populace are both described as genocide.

In 1972, martial law was proclaimed by a Tutsi officer, Michel Micombero, (Burundi president 1966 – 1976) whose bewhiskered face sported a set of lamb chops that would not look out of place under a pith helmet on the set of Zulu Dawn, and whose sepia photo still hangs among the cast of leaders in the entrance hall of the presidency in Bujumbura. Lists of Hutu targets were carefully drawn up, including the elite and those with a military background. The government claimed 15,000 were killed while Hutu opponents purported some 300,000.

Amidst ongoing violence in 1976, Tutsi Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bagaza led a bloodless coup and promoted various reforms. Then in 1987, Major Pierre Buyoya, another Tutsi, staged a coup, suspended the constitution and reinstated military rule.

In June 1993, the Hutu-led Front for Democracy in Burundi won the election. But tension grew quickly between the new government and the army and its political backers, and President Melchior Ndadaye was assassinated on 21 October 1993 by Tutsi officers. Possibly as many as 300,000 Tutsi and Hutu were massacred as reprisal followed reprisal in the following months. Amidst further waves of fighting, violence and refugee flows, Buyoya seized power again in a second coup d’état in 1996. The regional and international community played a key role in brokering a power sharing agreement between a Tutsi- dominated government and Hutu rebels in 2003, leading to a new constitution in 2005, and the election of a majority Hutu government of President Pierre Nkurunziza of the National Council for the Defence of Democracy in 2005 and, again, in 2010. In the latest coup, a group of officers acted to remove Nkurunziza apparently to head off his intention to run for a third presidential term. This military move came about in spite of a continuous international peacekeeping presence for the last decade.

In 2004 the UN Security Council established the United Nations Operation in Burundi (ONUB) “in order to support and help to implement the efforts undertaken by Burundians to restore lasting peace and bring about national reconciliation, as provided under the Arusha Agreement”. It was succeeded by the UN Integrated Office in Burundi (BINUB), established in October 2006; its mission to monitor the ceasefire, support the political process and ensure the Disarmament, Demobilisation and Reintegration of former combatants. ONUB peaked in 2005 at 5,665 total uniformed personnel. Despite a (sort of) peace for the last 15 years and oodles of international advice, training and finance to patch up its government and ethnically integrate its armed forces after decades of pogroms, not only has Burundi failed to make progress at the pace its citizens hoped for, but very quickly (and violently) has demonstrated just how fragile its stability has been. And Burundi is sadly not unique as to the limits of external assistance.

Post-Saddam Iraq is another high-profile example. Despite billions in equipment and training, the Iraqi military’s initial performance against Islamic State was woeful. Save international bombing missions and rapidly deployed military support, IS would probably today be at – or through – the gates of Baghdad. In Afghanistan, despite nearly 15 years of international effort, the jury is still out. The Afghan army has fought well when backed by NATO airpower and troops, but they have suffered heavy losses. Now that international troops have taken a step back, the performance of the Afghan army over the coming summer will likely be a key indicator of what the immediate future holds.

There are other dismal African experiences. The spectacular implosion of Mali’s army (and its once poster child democracy) in the face of a cocktail of threats involving a Toureg rebellion and Islamist insurgency, is one, as is the poor performance of Nigeria’s army against Boko Haram. That a small, 100-strong force of ageing South African mercenaries have enjoyed such success against the Nigerian Islamists, tells its own story.

There are many lessons to be drawn from these failures for external actors. Four stand out:

First, success (or failure) relates less to the origins of assistance than the political attitude and capacity of the recipients. Donors cannot want peace and recovery more than the locals.

Second, security is a critical door through which much else in government and the economy follows. Burundi’s Minister of Finance Tabu Abdallah Manirakiza in 2013 rightly described his country’s development conundrum as a “vicious cycle”, which he observed had its roots in the weakness of the institutions inherited at his country’s independence, compounded by subsequent attitudes and events. Institutional weakness fed off and exacerbated political and ethnic differences, discouraging long-term investors and instead attracting “opportunistic investment”, which, he said, “cannot develop the country or reduce poverty”. If poverty prevailed, he emphasised, there would be limited resources with the result that fighting would inevitably ensue over their control, further weakening already frail institutions.

War in fragile states, to reformulate Clausewitz, is less the continuation of politics by other means, than a reflection of wider society, including of economics. Within this milieu starts, ends and continues Burundi’s vicious cycle of fragility and underdevelopment.

But at the outset, whatever the complex interplay between growth, development and stability, if you don’t get the security element right, it’s going to be difficult to generate sustainable economic development and the reinforcing stabilisation effect this creates.

Third, related to the above, foreign assistance has to be part of a wider “plan” that the receiving country owns. This is the reason, for example, why Colombia has been so successful in dealing with its insurgency both militarily and economically since 2000. Bogota recognised it had a problem, sought itself international assistance (in the form of Plan Colombia with Washington), and pursued this with notable domestic vigour and attention to detail.

And Fourth, at the heart of stabilising many of these states, is the challenge of moving from a culture of patronage to a culture of ability and service, thus re- orienting the fundamental purpose of government by changing the incentives on offer to decision-makers, and reconfiguring the patterns of political behaviour.

The conditions for success thus go beyond greater resourcing of a defined “formula” for stabilisation, of more people and money, better plans, improved coherence and communication, of clearer processes, research and priorities, and more kit. Success is not about linear metrics, or about the efficacy of external actors. Drivers of success include legitimacy, not just stability; soft systemic not just hard physical infrastructure; and the primacy of issue- not identity-led national political choices. It is, in essence, about the health of the local political economy – of why and how choices are made. Even so, such awareness of the limits of outsiders in stabilising fragile states has not stopped donors from trying.

For example, Britain now spends 0.7 percent of its gross domestic product on aid, now totalling £12.2 billion, a staggering 1.6 percent of all UK government spending.

This is controversial not only given belt- tightening elsewhere in the British economy, but also because of real concerns about the impact of aid per se on development and stability. It also has encouraged the externalisation of problems and solutions by recipients. Unsurprisingly perhaps, Minister Manirakiza was keen to promote a solution to his vicious cycle based on an increase in external support, asking for a “Marshall Plan” for his country. In his analysis, a trebling of per capita annual aid to $90 would provide the necessary injection of finance.

Others have a different and less sanguine view on the role of cash. As Charles Nihangaza, a former minister of finance in Burundi, has argued, “It’s not money that’s the problem; much more so is the lack of human capacity.” In an environment, he added, “where there is corruption and bad governance along with this low capacity, it is not surprising that investors are not coming”. He lamented, “We should have been able to take off in terms of investment after the war, but the notion of the state,” he says, “is not understood in the same way by everyone – some see it as a source of personal interest, working for just a few people.”

Indeed, the Marshall Plan argument, which is often wheeled out by African politicians, forgets important aspects of the flows of funds to Europe at the end of the Second World War. First, the amount provided over a four-year period from 1947 was equivalent to $150 billion in today’s money, whereas Africa now receives some $35 billion every year in Western aid alone. Second, the Plan was for re-building Europe, not building it. The absorptive capacity of European countries, their skills base, was such that even though there was acute