Patriotic Burundi in Hipstamatic

I aten’t dead!  (To quote the great Granny Weatherwax.)  It’s been a wonderful and a whirlwind summer, and I’ve got quite a lot of new material to write about after my travels and especially the Rift Valley Institute course on the Great Lakes.  I’ll ease back into it with some photos from RVI in Bujumbura.  Having left my camera in Ghana, this became the “Burundi in Hipstamatic” series by default.

Flags of many nations at the airport

Celebrating the 50th anniversary of independence with bottled water

The mausoleum of Louis Rwagasore, Burundi’s first prime minister

Loved this colorful map of the region in the classroom

What to read on Burundi

Burundi is a fascinating place.  It’s one of the few nations that survived the transition from pre-colonial polity to Westphalian state with its original territory mostly intact, which could be a history lesson all by itself; its pattern of ethnicized access to resources and resultant political violence is just as heartbreaking as Rwanda’s; it’s utterly beautiful.  (Check out the second photo here.) And it’s an excellent case study in the ways in which our Western gaze towards Africa is pulled towards the topics we find it easy to understand: natural resources & wildlife, unusually large-scale or savage violence, apartheid, piracy.  Lacking much by the way of resources and unique fauna, its civil war somehow deemed less interesting than the Rwandan genocide, and (happily) free of “whites only” signs and pirates, Burundi is turned into a blank spot on our imagined map of Africa. This came through quite clearly when I was researching post-conflict ethnic reconciliation in Burundi for my independent study last semester.  There’s nowhere near the richness of the literature on Congo or Rwanda, although it seems that there’s a promising crop of young researchers like Cara Jones, Meghan Lynch & Cyrus Samii who have ongoing projects in the country.  That said, there are still a few good books to start with.

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.

Pres. Pierre Nkurunziza of Burundi at the Wilson Center

Went to see a decently interesting discussion with Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza at the Wilson Center last week.  (There’s video of an interview he later conducted at the Center here.)  As speeches by politicians tend to be, his presentation was a polished and upbeat discourse on Burundi’s post-war reconstruction, focusing on the country’s provision of free primary education and healthcare, and the success of consociationalism at keeping the peace.  Perhaps due to the fact that he’s not up for re-election any time soon, the questions were considerably gentler than those thrown at DRC presidential candidate Leon Kengo wa Dondo during a speech he gave at SAIS a few days previously.

(Adding to my collection of blurry photos of African politicians)

That said, I was interested to note that the first commentator pre-empted my own question by asking about whether the country’s ethnic reconciliation would be durable.  The responses given by both Nkurunziza and former Special Envoy to the Great Lakes Region Howard Wolpe fit the simplified formula I’m investigating in my thesis very well: powersharing + war fatigue = ethnic reconciliation.  No discussion of mechanisms at all, although I didn’t really expect such in this type of public forum.

Recommended reading on ethnicity in Rwanda & Burundi?

As mentioned in a previous post, I’m currently working on an MA thesis about post-conflict governance in Rwanda and Burundi.  Specifically, I’m interested in the ways in which popular ethnic reconciliation has occurred (or not occurred) in both countries.  There’s a decent amount of scholarly attention paid to Rwanda’s official denial of ethnicity and this policy’s detrimental effects upon popular reconciliation, but when discussion of Burundi occurs, it’s usually limited to the observation that consociationalism seems to have been efficacious in reducing ethnic tensions.  I haven’t found much research into the mechanisms by which Burundi’s reconciliation has occurred, which strikes me as a very interesting question. Since I can’t pop over to Burundi for research between now and December, I’m mostly planning to review the extant literature on this question and highlight areas for future research.

My current reading list is below; any additional suggestions or comments would be most welcome!  (I have more literature sitting unsorted on my hard drive, but this is what I successfully glanced through before my prospectus was due this week.)



Rwanda & Burundi