Two weeks ago, Burundi’s former president Jean Baptiste Bagaza died in Belgium at 69 years old. Bagaza, who came to power 1976 after ousting President Micombero in a coup, is nostalgically remembered as possibly one of Burundi’s best presidents. I have so say the nostalgia is not felt equally among all Burundians. Well although I was born two years after Buyoya removed him from power in 1987, I can confidently make an argument on why his policies, while great for some, did not translate into shared stability and progress that many would like us to believe. Yes, compared to Micombero, a ruthless dictator under whose rule Burundi experienced its bloodiest conflict, and who prosecuted thousands of Hutus, Bagaza was then breath of fresh air. However, his oppression of Catholics in a country where they made up more than 60% of the population, his continued exclusion of Hutu people in the army and government, and his selective education policies leave little to admire.
After the news of his death broke, he immediately became the topic of conversation on Burundi twitter. I noticed the conversation tilted towards praising him for the good things he did. A lot of people pointed out his investments in infrastructure, some even releasing a long list of all projects built during his tenure. All of those things are true, and certainly worthy of praise. But I believe building a country has got much to do with building of its social fabric as much as building its infrastructure. When I look at his accomplishments, it is clear Bagaza did extraordinarily well on the infrastructure piece, but he also presided over an economy that intentionally marginalized a majority of Burundians.
You are probably wondering how. To understand this, context is important. Bagaza took power four years after the 1972 genocide against Hutus. There is not a lot of data on the genocide itself for one reason or another (that’s a story for another day), but conservative figures put the death toll to somewhere between 150,000 and 300,000. These figures are devastating for a number of reasons besides the obvious loss of innocent lives. Micombero’s government targeted educated Hutu men, fifteen years and older. Stories I have personally heard confirm these facts. Anyone who at the time was in grade six or above was a target. Again, reliable numbers from this time are hard to come by, but those I have come across indicate that only 47% of all children in Burundi were enrolled in formal education at the time. Think about that for a moment. As it was, the majority of young Burundians did not have access to education, then comes 1972 genocide and it systematically takes out large numbers of those already few in the education system.
That was the state the country was in when Bagaza came to power. I find it critique worthy that yes, while he invested heavily in hospitals, roads, schools, dams, and all sorts of physical infrastructure, he did very little to remedy the social, economic and political ills of the Micombero regime, particularly those relating to uniting the country that was deeply divided on ethnic lines. For instance, while Hutu people made up an estimated 80% of the population, they only held seven of the sixty-five seats in the National Assembly and just two ministerial positions. Yes, that’s just slightly over ten percent. I know what you’re probably thinking, those are political positions. Well, it’s also been reported (and it kind of is general knowledge) that Hutu people generally occupied less than 10% of all the positions in schools, universities, hospitals, and other government agencies. Some people have pointed out to me that there were probably no “qualified” Hutu people in the country since most had died or left the country. This is a fair argument. Thousands did leave the country as a result of the genocide, but what I fear in making that argument is that it shifts the responsibility away from Bagaza. It’s like making excuses for him, which is something I think we Africans tend to do a lot. As a president, I would assume uniting the country would be a top priority. There is no evidence that he took initiatives to create an inclusive atmosphere whether by bringing 72 culprits to justice or reaching out to Hutus in a substantial way.
I do not want to say Bagaza did nothing to ensure Hutu’s inclusion and full participation in political, social, and economic life that was supposedly thriving at the time, but that’s exactly what he did. They say education is the single greatest thing you can do to get a people out of poverty, and yet when you look at Burundi during Bagaza’s era, you start noticing policies and/or practices that were deliberately aimed at limiting Hutus from accessing education, particularly higher education. I have casually heard about this one practice where students had to indicate which ethnic group they belong to by putting I or u on their examination papers. And since every major aspect of life was controlled by the government, this made it increasingly difficult for Hutus to get ahead. One of the results of such policies and practices was a growing economy that only benefited a very small portion of the population, and left millions and millions of others behind, frustrated. Today, one can still see evidence of those policies all around us. Again, it’s difficult to come by data to support this argument, but I am certain if you take a look at my parents’ generation for instance, you will notice clear ethnic discrepancies in educational levels. And we all know from multiple studies that children born to educated parents are not only more likely to do well in school but also earn more over the course of their lives.
I say all of that to say that while Bagaza investments in infrastructure immensely contributed to the growth of Burundi’s economy, Burundians did not reap its benefits equally. That is why I think it’s just as important to critique him as it is to praise him.
For some reason, I feel obligated to put down a little note to accompany this post. James Baldwin once said that “history of a people is never pretty”, and as we all know neither is Burundi’s. As much as I tried to be objective, I have to admit that it is possible that my objectivity may be compromised due to the way past Burundi events have affected me personally. One thing I have realized growing up Burundian is that there are certain ways to talk about certain things. We are not to be direct, we are to try and not offend people. We are not to be loud or impolite. I like that about Abarundi. It’s one of the things that define us: Indero. Ubushingantahe. Ubupfasoni. This undoubtedly also affects the way we tell our stories. While writing this blog, I had to resist the urge to directly call out Bagaza for things that he did or didn’t do. Why? it’s Unburundian. I also almost stopped every time I had to type “Hutu” or “Hutu people”. I think this is for a number of reasons really, but I feel like every time I talk about the exclusion of Hutu people in government and other public arenas in Burundi, I offend a Tutsi reader regardless of whether what I am saying is true or not. About three years ago, I read an article on the BBC about the progress Burundi had made in addressing ethnic issues. It talked about how people talk openly and even joke about each other’s ethnicities. I remember feeling happy and relieved that it was no longer a taboo to talk about such things. I was just starting to learn more about ethnic dynamics in Burundi and was happy that this is something I could discuss openly with others. Now I feel like the Burundi Crisis has brought the old guard back to a certain extent. Anyway, excuse me for this rather long note.
Tugire Amahoro kandi.
By Alain Ndayishimiye, who currently lives and works in Edmonton Canada. Follow him on Twitter @alainndayi
Photo source: lemonde.fr