Corruption narratives in Burundi

I wrote a short paper on corruption in post-conflict states, with a case study of Burundi, for one of my development classes last fall.  Like “empowerment,” “corruption” is a famously slippery concept, and even the standard definition of “use of public resources for private gain” may be read in more or less normative ways which can support widely varying analyses of the same situation.  Studies of post-conflict corruption seem to be especially affected by this lack of analytical rigor.  Most of the literature I found was written by development practitioners, and was characterized by a normative view of corruption and an unsupported assumption that corruption could delegitimize fragile post-conflict governments and create grievances that could spark a return to conflict.  By contrast, social scientists tend to follow J.P. Olivier de Sardan in seeing “corruption [as]…socially embedded in ‘logics’ of negotiation, gift-giving, solidarity, predator authority and redistributive accumulation” (source). The best writing on Burundi takes this approach, and views its endemic corruption as part of the broader process of legal and extralegal distribution of state monies that’s the main thing holding the country’s political class together right now.  (Rene Lemarchand has an up-to-date analysis of this phenomenon in The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa.)

That said, I definitely thought the most interesting article I came across was Simon Turner’s “Corruption Narratives and the Power of Concealment: The Case of Burundi’s Civil War.”  It’s a chapter in a book called Corruption and the Secret of Law, and focuses on the way in which discussions of corruption reflect broader concerns about the Burundian political cosmology.  More concretely, allegations of corruption are often used to convey the sense that an unworthy person has gained political power through secretive and illicit transactions – even if there’s no evidence of actual corruption.  Viewed in this way, corruption can be seen as analogous to witchcraft, which also grants “illegitimate” and “immoral” types of power to its practitioners. More troubling is the perception that power built on the tenuous base of corruption or witchcraft can easily crumble when its illegitimacy is brought to light, perhaps leading again to conflict.  There’s also a profound symmetry here with Peter Uvin’s assessment that Burundians tend to view politics in terms of people, and not of institutions.  When he asked ordinary Burundians about the changes they’d like to see in the country’s political life, almost all of them expressed a desire for more upright and moral people in office, rather than, say, better enforcement of anti-corruption laws.  (This and any number of other fascinating observations can be found in Life After Violence.)

In other words, one could conceivably argue that corruption may have differential effects on Burundian political stability at the national and popular levels of analysis.  Lemarchand writes in Dynamics of Violence that “the [Burundian] government is not meant to govern; its purpose is to offer an attractive alternative to rebellion” by institutionalizing interethnic access to state resources.  Given that up to 20% of the country’s GDP was lost to embezzlement in 2006, corruption presumably plays a large role in the distribution of state resources across ethnic lines (source, PDF).  However, at the popular level, the perception of official corruption does seem to lower the legitimacy of political actors, but for moral reasons rather reasons of illegality or breach of the social contract.