Where Did It All Go Wrong for Rwanda and Burundi Relations?


In August Burundi barred transport vehicles from crossing the border into Rwanda. Since then, all food exports to Burundi’s closest neighbour have been banned, deepening the bilateral rift between the two countries.

Back in May, Rwanda expelled more than 1,500 Burundians after they refused to be moved to refugee camps. The crackdown followed a period of Rwandans being expelled from Burundi since April 2015, when Burundi’s political crisis exploded.

Burundi’s president accuses Rwanda of supporting the rebels fighting against his government – and it wouldn’t be the first time Rwanda has fuelled rebellions in a neighbouring country. However, Burundi’s neighbour strongly denies the accusations, criticising Nkurunziza for the current political climate in his country.

Relations between the two countries are so damaged some fear an ethnic conflict could ignite. Others would suggest it has already begun. So where did it all go wrong for the two neighbours who share such a close history?


Two big men collide

Despite being the region’s two smallest nations, Rwanda and Burundi’s influence in East and Central Africa is growing by the year. Both leaders secured the fresh title of big men in their respective countries in 2015.

First, Pierre Nkurunziza sparked national crisis by announcing his plans to run for a third term in April 2015. Meanwhile, Paul Kagame waited until December to reveal he would also run for a third term – but not before criticising Nkurunziza for doing precisely the same thing.

The key difference is Kagame secured his power grab after constitutional changes legitimised it. He did so after creating a state where speaking out against the government is a poor life choice. Public outcry or widespread opposition to Kagame’s announcement to run for a third term was never a concern.

Meanwhile, Nkurunziza’s approach split his country into one of the worst civil conflicts since Rwanda’s 1994 genocide.


A fractured partnership

Since Rwanda and Burundi regained independence in 1962, the countries have shared a close but troubled partnership. With almost identical ethnic buildups, both countries endured similar conflicts – most recently genocides in 1993 (Burundi) and 1994 (Rwanda).

On April 6, 1994, the two nations lost their leaders as a plane carrying Rwanda President Juvénal Habyarimana and Burundi’s Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down. Responsibility for the attack has been disputed ever since but it’s widely regarded as the catalyst for the genocide that followed in Rwanda.

Fast-forward to 2005 and a certain Pierre Nkurunziza became Burundi’s hottest presidential candidate. And his early political career enjoyed great support from Rwanda with Kigali financing his entire electoral campaign. That might sound like a good precedent for the future, but it had more to do with Kigali’s distaste for then-president Pierre Buyoya than Nkurunziza or Burundi’s concerns.

There were clear financial incentives for Rwanda’s continued investment in Burundi, too – although its relationship took a turn for the worse in October 2013. The M23 rebellion – a pro-Rwandan movement in Congo – was defeated and Rwanda accused Burundi of being a safe haven for combatants during the conflict.

Those accusations caused a tension in Burundi’s fragile ethnic-political makeup. Rwanda was accused by the UN of supporting M23 rebels in Congo and a splinter emerged in Burundi’s political system. The partnership was fractured.


Competition between two authoritarians

The countries’ two big men, Kagame and Nkurunziza rule over two very different kinds of state. Kagame’s Rwanda is a place almost entirely free from public opposition to the president or his government. The people voted for constitutional changes that allow Kagame to run again next year. In Rwanda, Kagame’s grip on power is unquestioned.

Things are very different for Pierre Nkurunziza in Burundi. As soon as he announced his plans to run for a third term, the nation’s capital tore itself apart in conflict. A failed coup attempt only provoked the leader and his allies to hit back at the opposition even harder. Nkurunziza’s hold on power is far less complete than Kagame’s – but just as relentless.

Both leaders’ ambitions stretch beyond their own borders, too – and this is where the neighbourly relationship breaks down. Kagame is working hard to establish Rwanda as a leading nation between the East and Central African regions. While Nkurunziza knows this would leave Burundi sitting in its neighbour’s shadow. So, at this stage, Rwanda’s win is Burundi’s loss – and vice versa.

The problem for Burundi is nobody knows how much of a fight it can put up in its current state. Ravaged by civil conflict, the nation’s economy is in tatters and international sympathy for its government is wearing thin. The truth is, even a united Burundi couldn’t compete with Rwanda’s military, economic or political clout in the EAC.

Meanwhile, Nkurunziza’s government continues to accuse Rwanda of supporting rebels in its civil crisis. The question is what could Burundi or the international community do, even if this is proven to be true?


Featured image:

By Copyright World Economic Forum www.weforum.org / Matthew Jordaan mattjordaanphoto@gmail.com – Africa as the World’s potential Breadbasket – World Economic Forum on Africa 2009, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7019397

About Aaron Brooks

Aaron Brooks is a UK journalist who wants to cut out the international agendas in news. Spending his early years in both England and Northern Ireland he saw the difference between reality and media coverage at an early age. After graduating from the University of Chester with a BA in journalism, his travels revealed just how large the gap between news and the real world can be. As Editor-in-Chief at East Africa Monitor, it’s his job to provide a balanced view of what’s going on in the region for English-speaking audiences.