Burundi is not making a good case for the virtuous circle of pluralism and good governance generating economic growth, writes Dave Peterson, especially when neighboring Rwanda’s authoritarian model of development appears so successful.
The Chinese model of authoritarian development seems to be gaining some currency in parts of Africa, such as Rwanda. Rwanda’s evident economic success, whatever problems it may have with equity and sustainability, is in stark contrast to neighboring Burundi’s continuing poverty. Starker still is the so-called good governance Paul Kagame’s iron fist has brought to Rwanda. Corruption has been suppressed, order and discipline abound, and a path of peace, stability and growth seems to have been found. In comparison, Burundi’s corruption and dysfunction only seem to get worse.
The only good thing that could once be said of Burundi was that at least it was democratic, while Rwanda was not. The 2005 elections heralded a new beginning after Burundi’s long civil war. But the 2010 elections were a different story, however free and fair international observers declared them. They had their flaws, and rightly or wrongly the opposition boycotted. Since then, unfortunately, Burundi’s hard-won freedoms have eroded considerably. Opposition leaders fled the country, extrajudicial killings and other human rights abuses increased, and insecurity returned. According to Freedom House, Burundi’s once-decent partially-free rating of 3 for political freedoms in 2005 had fallen to 5 last year. Nevertheless, Rwanda’s political freedom rating remains at 6, which I would argue is overly generous.
In addition, those of us in the democracy-building community have often assumed or contended that democracy will engender peaceful political competition that will in turn result in good governance that will then lead to economic development. Ghana might be considered an instance of this kind of development, but Africa offers precious few other unambiguous examples.
Burundi’s negotiated peace had been hailed as a model for sub-Saharan Africa. Indeed, according to a focus group study from the National Democratic Institute, ethnic divisions in Burundi largely receded, a development largely attributable to the open political process. Rwanda, by contrast, has criminalized discussion of ethnicity, and despite the current calm and apparent stability, observers fear that domination by a single minority ethnic group is unsustainable and will inevitably lead to conflict, instability and violence. Yet, since the 2010 elections it is Burundi that experienced the surge in violence and human rights abuses, although this may be subsiding.
Fortunately, several NED-funded civil society groups in Burundi are addressing these issues.
The drift towards monopartism, corruption, and human rights violations dominated the agenda of a conference held a few days ago on September 24 – International Democracy Day – organized by the Civil Society and Electoral Monitoring Coalition (COSOME). About 40 representatives of political parties, civil society, religious leaders, democracy experts, a member of the electoral commission, and two former presidents, Sylvester Ntibantunganya and Domitien Ndayizeye, debated the duties of politicians; called for greater democratic control and more space for civil society; and recommended greater freedom of expression, more control over political institutions, and inclusive dialogue. They contrasted the democratic system enjoyed by the elites and their “Bretton Woods bosses” to the democracy of the people, who contend with unemployment and insecurity. There were many other criticisms, admonishments and recommendations, all of which was broadcast on three radio stations.
What I found most remarkable about all this was that such an event could never be held in Rwanda. Any criticism of the government there is only heard in whispers and behind closed doors. The Rwandan media would never broadcast such a debate. The idea of having representatives from so many different political parties getting together in the same room to have an open discussion would seem unfathomable in Rwanda today, but in Burundi it is normal, if rare.
Another NED partner, PARCEM (Parole et Action pour le Reveil des Consciences et l’Evolution des Mentalites – above) has a more direct interest in good governance, particularly the fight against corruption. It is well known that Burundi is plagued by corruption at every level and it is now considered the worst performer in East Africa, which has some pretty tough competition in that category. Surely this discourages investors, both domestic and international, and generates cynicism and conflict among citizens. Corruption undermines the rule of law, weakens government institutions and squanders resources. Yet Faustin Ndikumana, PARCEM’s president, was arrested earlier this year for his efforts to expose corruption in the judiciary.
The group currently has a modest NED grant to campaign for better laws to combat corruption, including a Freedom of Information Law. I was surprised in perusing both the World Bank and the International Crisis Group’s recommendations for Burundi that enactment of such a law was not suggested. The Freedom of Information law in Nigeria seems to be making a significant contribution to the fight against corruption and it has become a contentious issue in South Africa. Many other African countries are considering similar provisions.
Civil society doesn’t have all the answers to the problems that bedevil Burundian democracy, but greater respect for freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, and freedom of expression can certainly help strengthen the enabling environment for transparency and good governance, and ultimately economic growth. Arresting whistle blowers, human rights activists, and journalists is certainly not conducive to good governance, economic growth, or social peace, and the international community should be more forceful in denouncing such behavior. Rather, more support should go to such groups to insure that other support to the government is not wasted through corruption.
“Better poor and free than rich and a slave.” Sekou Toure was referring to his former French masters, and did not turn out to be much of a democrat himself, betraying and in turn enslaving the people of Guinea. But democracy offers an alternative. NDI’s focus groups noted Burundians’ desire for freedom and democracy, and I think most Rwandans would want the same thing if given the chance to express themselves and vote freely.