Power Sharing for Post-Conflict Development: The Case of Rwanda and Burundi


Photo of Kigali, Rwanda by Flickr user oledoe under an Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic license.

By Francis Jung


According to the World Bank, the IMF and the US Agency for International Development (USAID), Rwanda is doing exceptionally well at attaining the development goals outlined in its Vision 2020, despite the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.  Burundi, on the other hand, is not doing so well; especially since President Pierre Nkurunziza’s announcement to run for a third term in April of 2015.  Why is Rwanda doing so well, while Burundi is doing so poorly when it comes to achieving human development goals?

At face value, the question seems broad and mundane to which any number of people in the development community could provide a separate answer, half of which would start out with, “that depends;” but a deeper analysis of their similarities suggest that it would be reasonable to draw from the two something specific that explains why one country has driven down poverty and infant mortality while maintaining stable growth rates and the other is all but re-immersed back into conflict.

This article establishes that the reason Rwanda is doing so well is mainly due to two factors:  first, the consolidation of power, the exclusion of opposing parties and the establishment of a single-party state early on its post-conflict development and second, Rwanda’s focus on implementing the Sustainable Development Goals; and Burundi is doing so poorly because the government is vulnerable to power seeking, would-be political entrepreneurs.


The region of Rwanda and Burundi, once known collectively as Ruanda-Urundi, was originally inhabited by the Hutu, an agrarian society, which was infiltrated over centuries and later dominated by the Tutsi, a cattle rearing society thought to be from the Nile region.  Then in 1897, the region was annexed by Germany and later invaded by Belgium during WWI.  A Colony from 1914-1962, Belgium exacerbated a pre-existing class-system in which the Tutsi population was considered superior and the Hutu inferior.  This favoritism towards Tutsi and prejudice against the Hutu had severe long term impacts on the population and despite gaining independence in 1962, the ethnic conflict persisted, resulting in genocide.  In 1972 in Burundi, the Tutsi attempted to commit genocide against the Hutu and then in 1993, the Hutu attempted the same atrocity to the Tutsi until Pierre Nkurunziza, a Hutu rebel leader at the time, put an end to the conflict.

In August 1993, the Rwandan government and the RPF signed the Arusha Accords – a peace treaty sponsored by the UN that intended to end conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi people. The Accords failed in Rwanda, resulting in the 1994 genocide. Burundi, however, upheld the Accords, which their government signed in 2000.

In 1994 in Rwanda, the Hutu majority government wiped out 70 percent of the Tutsi population until Paul Kagame, leader of the Tutsi-backed Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took control, after which an estimated 2 million Hutus became displaced refugees.  In recent years, both countries appeared to be attempting to put aside ethnic tension and work towards a path of prosperity and development.


In economic terms, Rwanda and Burundi exhibit some similarities. Rwanda has experienced a 7 percent GDP growth rate since 2003, while Burundi experienced economic stability since the Arusha Peace Accord in 2000 and then remarkable reduction in poverty since 2005 until President Nkurunziza’s decision to run for a third term.  Both countries depend heavily upon foreign assistance.  From 1994 to 2015, Rwanda received a total $3.629 billion in development assistance, while Burundi received a total $1.615 billion during the same period.  Both economies depend heavily upon foreign assistance and their accomplishments, or lack thereof, influence how much they receive.  For example, in Burundi, some Western donors have suspended aid because they felt the government was reluctant to end the violence that broke out after Nkurunziza’s announcement to run for a third term.

A significant difference between the two countries are the relative levels of government stability.  Politically, both countries are identified as presidential republics, both countries gained independence in 1962, and both countries governments are the result of rebellion or insurgency.  In Rwanda, President Paul Kagame has been in power since April of 2000, although the Rwandan 2003 constitution allows only two seven year terms.  Despite this and the 2015 Rwandan Constitutional Referendum, which will give Kagame the right to rule until 2034, Rwanda is doing extremely well in achieving human development goals.

In Burundi, Pierre Nkurunziza, leader of the Forces for the Defense of Democracy (FDD) became president in 2005 after being elected by members of parliament, acting as an electoral college.  It is because he was elected by members of parliament and not by a public ballot for his first term that President Nkurunziza felt justified running for a third term.  In 2003, Nkurunziza, the leader of the FDD, signed a peace agreement to end a decade of civil war.  Until recently, after President Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term, Burundi was also doing very well in achieving human development goals.

From the end-of-conflict to present day it’s simple to say that had Nkurunziza not ran for a third term, Burundi would still be on positive human development trend.  However, looking deeper into its political timeline,  compared to Rwanda, it’s arguable that had a political crisis not occurred today, there would be a likelihood that one would have occurred tomorrow.

Development Progress: Tied to Governance Issues

So, why then, is Rwanda doing so well despite President Kagame’s successful attempts to remain in power and Burundi doing so poorly as President Nkurunziza’s attempts have been met with protest?  The answer goes back prior to the Rwandan Genocide of 1994.  Post-conflict, however, Burundi was in gaining praise and applause for its pro-active attempts at power-sharing, while Rwanda was under condemnation for doing precisely the opposite.  During the time, it was suggested that the RPF was complicit in the shooting down of the airplane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and Cyprien Ntaryamira, the Hutu president of Burundi, sparking the 1994 Rwandan Genocide.  In addition, critics opposed to power-sharing agreements at the time where told that the vulnerabilities that power-sharing governments are exposed to are not because of power-sharing, but because transitional governments are not sharing enough.

Rwanda’s success can be attributed, for better or worse, to Paul Kagame. Kagame, commander of the forces that ended, and arguably started the 1994 genocide, was a political entrepreneur who possessed hands-on and intuitive knowledge of the hidden costs of power sharing, as well as the role the West played in post-conflict development.  Under President Kagame, power was consolidated by jailing individual leaders of opposing parties and banning opposing parties, claiming that they were divisive to the country, ultimately creating a single-party state after the parliament voted to ban the MDR (Mouvement démocratique républicain), the last opposing party, on April 15, 2003.

Since the incumbent was killed in a plane crash, which triggered a government genocidal assault on the Tutsi population, the RPF obtained full diplomatic support from the West, best exemplified by the UN assistance mission that approved the deployment of 600 RPF troops into Kigali’s parliament building and gained total control of the state after ending the 1994 genocide.  Ultimately, the quality of democratic governance had little effect on aid levels.

Western governments and organizations, due to failed experiments in democracy in places such as Sudan, Rwanda, Burundi and the DRC, shifted their focus from democracy to conflict-prevention, conflict-management and stability.  Again, Rwanda has seen steady economic growth rates at 7 percent since 2003, the same year it became a single-party state.  In 2017, it was named by the World Bank to be one of the most resilient economies.  So, even though Kagame was a rebel insurgent who turned Rwanda into a single-party state and became a dictator once resented by Western governments and organizations, the establishment of Rwanda’s Vision 2020 and successful path towards reaching that vision has gained President Paul Kagame praise and admiration from the international community today.

Burundi, on the other hand, is now in political turmoil.  Since announcing his bid to run for re-election in April, 2015, President Pierre Nkurunziza has been struggling to stay in power despite a coup attempt by General Godefroid Niyombare, Burundi’s army’s Chief of Staff, nominated by President Nkurunziza himself.  Going back further and taking a look at Burundi’s timeline it becomes clear that power sharing agreements, at least in the case African Great Lakes region, are far more likely to entice power-seeking, political entrepreneurs to take a shot at political control.  For example, the Forces for National Liberation (FNL) was the only rebel Hutu group excluded from incorporation into the Burundian National Army in 2005.  In 2006, although a ceasefire was reached, there were clashes between government forces and the FNL.  After 2009, when the FNL became a legitimate political party led by Agathon Rwasa, there were more attacks linked to the FNL, but Agathon Rwasa fled after dropping out of the 2010 election won by Nkurunziza. However, suspicion about the legitimacy of the election led to the formation of the Alliance of Democrats for Change (ADC-Ikbiri).  Had Nkurunziza consolidated power swiftly and decisively after his election, much like President Kagame did in Rwanda, he may have had more resources to put towards development rather than quelling rebel attacks.


The point here is not to say that power-sharing agreements are bad and have no use in development.  In fact, the point is quite the contrary.  Power-sharing agreements implemented too soon after conflict in a country’s recovery is “ best thought of as the continuation of civil war by other means.”  All advanced democracies have some sort of power-sharing agreement.  The United States is a perfect example with its system of checks and balances among the three branches of government, but it’s important to remember that development and independence in the United States took over a century.  Therefore, it may be useful to look at post-conflict development as a long-term process through which authoritarian regimes may play a hand in maintaining the stability necessary to embed political institutions into the social norms of society, after which, conditions may prove more favorable for power-sharing agreements.

In the case of Rwanda, the true power-sharing agreement was with the UN and Western donors which led to an outcome in which donors can leverage aid as a sort of “check and balance” to post-conflict dictatorships or authoritarian regimes.  This is exemplified by the praise President Kagame is receiving from aid institutions as he keeps up with his end of the bargain by establishing and attaining the sustainable development goals he outlined in Rwanda’s Vision 2020.

If President Nkurunziza refrained from sharing power and focused on post-conflict development, it’s possible that Burundi would’ve undergone a far more stable and positive development trend, and his decision to run for a third term would have had less of a negative impact today.


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