A Tale of Two Neighboring Nations in the Heart of Africa and How their Politics Affect Each Other

By Innocent Justice Ndagijimana

As a high school student in the southern province of Rwanda, I remember how we received many Hutu refugees at my boarding school. Since our cultures are intertwined what happens in Burundi can influence reaction in Rwanda verse versa. When Hutus in Burundi realized that their voices could not be heard through ballots, some of them started an armed struggle to force the Tutsi regime to negotiate power sharing with them and that resulted in a dialogue that provided a framework for the share of power.

In Rwanda, a predominately Hutu regime was fighting a predominantly Tutsi rebel movement that was led by then Major Paul Kagame, the current President of Rwanda. Among the list of grievances the RPF addressed, there was a complaint that there was no freedom of speech, no democracy, a bad governance and that the Hutu regime refused a peaceful repatriation of exiled Tutsis. After a four year civil war that ended with a genocide which claimed hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and Hutus, the RPF took power on July 4th 1994.

We thought the new RPF regime that fought for liberty and democracy would be an example of good governance in the whole region, but we were dead wrong! The RPF is far more brutal than the regime it replaced. Rwandans in and out of Rwanda live in constant fear, especially those who dare to speak their minds! On July 19, 1994, the RPF put in place a new government, General Paul Kagame chose Pasteur Bizimungu for president as a Hutu figurehead. Kagame created the new position of Vice President and served as Minister of Defense. In 2000, when it was time for General Kagame to take over, without using a figurehead of state, he did a bloodless coup de état. Pasteur Bizimungu was thrown in maximum prison few months later and the VP position Kagame created for himself was suspended.

In Rwanda, power sharing failed because the Tutsi rebels shot down the plane that carried two Hutu Presidents, Juvenale Habyarimana of Rwanda and Cyprien Ntaryamira of Burundi. President Cyprien Ntaryamira replaced Melichior Ndadaye who was assassinated by extremist Tutsis in Burundi and then he was assassinated by extremist Tutsis in Rwanda, after less than a year of being in power. President Ntaryamira was on the same plane with Habyarimana and some key cabinet members from both countries.

The assassination of two presidents and their key assistants ruined any hope of power sharing in Rwanda as formerly agreed upon during the Arusha Accord. In Arusha, Tanzania, the RPF and the predominantly Hutu government that was in place negotiated power sharing and they were specific about how Hutus and Tutsis should share power, however, the RPF took everything when they won the war. In Burundi, the government dominated by Tutsis was pressured to negotiate power sharing with Hutus and their negotiations were fruitful because both parties were genuine. There was no backstabbing, like in Rwanda’s power sharing negotiations.

Since their independence both countries have not known a peaceful transfer of power but Burundi made a history on May 20, 2020 after H.E. President Nkurunziza Pierre fulfilled his promise of not seeking another term in office. His counterpart in Rwanda, Paul Kagame, has been in power for 20 years as President! He changed the constitution back in 2017, and could be in power until 2034 when he will be 77 years old! Burundi’s trajectory is hopeful, but Rwanda’s situation is like a ticking time bomb!

We know what works because our neighbors in Burundi have done that and we saw their results, but extremist Tutsis in Kigali can’t perceive sharing power with the Hutus that they see as second class citizens! If nothing is done, Rwanda will experience new waves of violence that could claim hundreds of thousands of innocent lives!