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


Alarming sentences

From Stef Vandeginste, “Power-Sharing as a Fragile Safety Valve in Times of Electoral Turmoil: The Costs and Benefits of Burundi’s 2010 Elections” [PDF]:

Burundi’s experience seems to contradict the classical criticism that consociational power-sharing “freezes” people’s identities and therefore deepens the segmental cleavages and divisions… Instead, the acknowledgement and institutionalisation of the segments’ political relevance may be seen as a first and necessary (though by no means final) step in the process of de-ethnicising political competition and of overcoming decades of politico-ethnic violence. (In which case neighbouring Rwanda still needs to embark on its own consociational journey, presumably after a next round of politico-ethnic violence). (p. 82, emphasis added)

Not that I don’t also think this is likely.  But it’s a bit chilling to hear the prospect of additional violence in Rwanda discussed so casually.

Grievance, rainfall, & migration in Burundi

Currently reading an interesting paper by Eleanora Nillesen & Philip Verwimp on whether agricultural shocks (namely rainfall shocks) increased people’s likelihood to actively participate in Burundi’s civil war.  They find that, whilst negative shocks to the price of coffee (the country’s principle cash crop) didn’t increase rebel recruitment, drought shocks were positively correlated with recruitment, perhaps underlining the greater role of agriculture in helping households manage risk – it could be a greater blow to lose consumption crops than to receive a lower yearly payment for a cash crop.  (It was especially interesting to read this in light of Heather Sarsons’ recent work [PDF] questioning the use of rainfall as an instrument for wages from agricultural labor, based on new data from India.  She suggests that, unsurprisingly, rainfall may affect people’s participation in political protests through channels other than the creation of grievance & reduced opportunity cost of involvement.  Since N&V weren’t using rainfall as an instrument, this critique doesn’t directly apply to their work, but it’s still useful to think through the multiplicity of ways in which rainfall affects people’s lives in low income countries.)

N&V also included a small methodological note which I found especially telling in re: the social importance of land in Burundi.  The sample for the data underlying this paper was drawn from households who completed the 1998 Burundi Priority Survey, which was a joint project of the Burundi Institute of Statistics & Economic Studies and the World Bank.  Interestingly, despite the fact that N&V collected a second round of data in 2007, after multiple years of war, they noted only 13% attrition from their original sample.  As they write, “In Burundi the pressure [on] land is extraordinary high…  As a result people may have only have fled [from the conflict] at the very last minute, if there was no other option, and return[ed] immediately after the violence…to ensure their claim to land. Most often, our survey team would find the households in the same location as in 1998” (p. 6).  Pretty remarkable.

Ghosts of ethnicity

From Thomas Laely, “Peasants, Local Communities, and Central Power in Burundi“:

The existence of ethnic groups has been questioned in recent years by some scholars, while others have contested or emphasised their importance, usually for political reasons. But as Jean Bazin once said, “As in the case of ghosts, the question is not to know if they exist or not, but why they appear.”

(Stay tuned for more Burundi blogging as I launch into my MA thesis on state-building in Rwanda & Burundi!)