Carolyn McAskie is a Canadian expert in international development who was awarded the Order of Canada, one of the country’s highest honors, in 2007. She headed the United Nations peacekeeping mission in the Central African country of Burundi from 2004 to 2006, when a new political system was created and hopes were high. Later, as UN assistant secretary-general for peacebuilding from 2006 to 2008, she remained focused on Burundi, a still-fragile country, once an independent monarchy colonized in 1890 by Germany, occupied by Belgium in 1916 and under Belgian trusteeship until independence in 1962.
Intermittent violence has recurred over recent decades. McAskie, who left the UN, has watched in dismay as President Pierre Nkurunziza, a Hutu who emerged from the 2005 political agreement negotiated in Arusha, Tanzania, which she helped foster, has become another “big man” unwilling to relinquish power.
In an interview by telephone recently from McAskie’s home in Quebec Province, she discussed how and why poor, resourceless Burundi has descended into deadly chaos again.
Here are excerpts of what McAskie said about Burundi, with the author’s text in italics:
In Burundi and Rwanda, the Tutsi and Hutu hatreds were always deep-seated, and you can blame a lot of that on the colonial period under the Belgians, who favored one over the other [the Tutsi minority over the Hutu majority]. In Burundi, it was even worse than divide and rule. It was really divide and conquer. Empower and humiliate was what it was. So there were some very deep-rooted resentments.
If you look at the beginnings of the Burundi crisis, which was more long-drawn-out than the Rwanda one, you could see that the Tutsis had 99 percent of the cabinet positions in any government, and they really were looking after their own. So it was very much a sense of, ‘It’s our job to run this country, not these other people, who are inferior.’
There was also the sense that in such a dysfunctional economy, such a poor, poor economy if you were out of power, you had nothing: You didn’t have your government car, you didn’t have status, or a job to go to, and your wife couldn’t go shopping in Nairobi and Brussels. You were literally barefoot and back in the shamba, back in the hills in your little village. I always had a theory that was actually supported by people like Benjamin Mkapa, when he was president of Tanzania and very involved in the 2005 Arusha regional peace process for Burundi. My theory was that although you could not deny the ethnic elements of the Burundi conflict, I always believed that it was a struggle for power in a resource-poor country. The Tanzanians at the highest level agreed with me that it was much more a struggle for power than it ever was a true ethnic conflict. But it was a struggle for power that certainly played out along ethnic lines.
Tanzania had the strongest motivation for peace in Burundi. Over the years, there were two million refugees in Tanzania from Rwanda and Burundi. The Rwandans went home in 1996, but there were still a million or so refugees from Burundi. It was one of the reasons that [the late Tanzanian president] Julius Nyrere started the peace process, because Tanzania was suffering. And what a lot of people don’t know was that Nyrere, when he created Tanzania out of Tanganyika and Zanzibar, invited Rwanda and Burundi to his federation. If they had become partly under the leadership of Nyrere, can you imagine what sort of a peaceful role the Lakes region would have now? They said no. I could understand that because Tanzania is a creation of the modern world, whereas Rwanda and Burundi were ancient kingdoms. So it’s a very complicated history.
The emergence of President Pierre Nkurunziza in 2005:
The party of the current president, the FDD [the Forces for the Defense of Democracy] weren’t in Arusha. They were still out in the bush threatening war, and Nyrere never managed to get them to the table. That was one of the elements of what went wrong. Another element was once the peace process was being finally implemented in terms of the rebel groups laying down their arms and being integrated into the army and the police — a whole reform of the security services — all of these little groups that had started as fighting groups wanted to run for election as political parties. So the whole business of laying down their guns and being registered as political parties was a process that had to take time.
The old Hutu parties that were not the fighter groups thought that now that the main Tutsi party had agreed to power-sharing, ‘We’re going to win.’ And they didn’t win. But who won the elections? The FDD, a newly formed [Hutu-led] political party that came out of the main fighting group. They were very smart, they had a relatively sophisticated organization on the ground when they were fighting — for recruitment, purchase of arms, military strategy — which they were able to turn into a grassroots political network.
All the young people, including a lot of young Tutsis, voted for the FDD because, they said: ‘We’re fed up with these old guys and their parties and their struggles. These [new] guys are the young warriors come out of the bush. This is the future.’ The FDD got a fairly large percentage of Tutsi votes.
Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Nkurunziza was never a democrat. He was not good at sharing power. And he was not good at cooperating with the international and regional forces that had helped put him in place. Once elected, Nkurunziza wanted the UN out of there, he wanted the African Union out of there, and he wasn’t interested in taking advice from Jacob Zuma of South Africa or the Tanzanians. He was suspicious of President [Yoweri] Museveni in Uganda because Museveni’s mother is a Tutsi. Nkurunziza said, ‘We will run our own country; we don’t need any advice.’
This was a disaster, because the one thing Burundi needed was help and advice. But the other side of the coin was that help didn’t really materialize. The people who had been looking at what peacebuilding was all about were not able to deliver. I was the one who worked very hard to get Burundi as the first client of the UN Peacebuilding Commission. The Brits were pushing Sierra Leone when I was pushing Burundi, and it made absolutely good sense that you had one Francophone Central/East African country and one Anglophone West African country.
For the first year or so, Burundi did get quite a lot of help, mainly because the people running the Burundi process in the Peacebuilding Commission were the Norwegians. Sierra Leone didn’t get a lot of help because they were being run by the Dutch ambassador, who was desperately let down by The Hague. We persuaded him to take it on, he worked very hard, and he got nothing from his capital. He finally tried to hold a special pledging conference the week his foreign minister was in town — and his foreign minister didn’t even show up at the meeting. It was disastrous. But Sierra Leone had the Brits.
Burundi never had a chance. The Belgians were not strong enough. Cote d’Ivoire had the French, Liberia had the Americans and Sierra Leone had the Brits. Before the 2005 elections, the Burundian acting president in the transitional government phoned Kofi Annan [the UN secretary-general] and said: ‘I don’t have one of those. Will the UN back me?’
Once Nkurunziza was elected and they asked the UN to leave, I fought hard to say: ‘Look, things have changed. You’re the boss. We’re not trying to run anything here. Take advantage of the UN. You have the right as any member country to take what the UN can offer. We’re here to help you.’ He saw me as a meddler. I managed to get around it by publicizing in the international community how [if] we could spend a billion dollars on peacekeeping, Burundi deserves a billion dollars in reconstruction. In Burundi, they suddenly realized that I was potentially a friend. After I left, they tried to declare my successor persona non grata.
Over time, however, the Peacebuilding Commission did not come up with the massive kind of investment for education, rebuilding the justice system, rebuilding the police, rebuilding the courts. It all hinged a lot on the Burundians’ refusal to implement that aspect of the Arusha accord that mandated a human rights tribunal — a peace and reconciliation process. Of course, they wouldn’t because most of the guilty party were now running the country.
It’s easy to say that the system didn’t work, or the UN didn’t work . . . but countries didn’t put up resources. A lot of the experts who have looked at conflict and development have said what you need is a massive influx of resources to get things up and running. [But] with all this business about, well, we have to let the countries define their needs, and we have to do long-term planning, nobody’s coming up to the plate and saying, look, never mind the long-term planning, how about if we offer you a hundred teachers, and you would find a hundred people for each of those teachers for training purposes, and we’ll pay for that for five years. And we will provide you with the money to replace the school desks and schoolbooks. Unicef has a school-in-a-box that they can set up in a refugee camp. Why couldn’t we send 500 schools-in-a-box and a hundred people into Burundi to get the schools going? We’re all about training, planning and all of that. Meanwhile, the kids aren’t going to school.
The elections that followed the implementation of the Arusha accord had multiple steps: the adoption of a constitution, voting for district councils, parliamentary constituency elections and provincial elections to choose two senators, one Tutsi and one Hutu. Nkurunziza’s party emerged with an overall majority:
So then the last process was the election of the president, and what was enshrined in the constitution was that the president would be elected by a majority in Parliament. So he was elected through a constitutionally approved electoral process. It was a forgone conclusion because Nkurunziza’s party had the seats to do it. They couldn’t have done it without the UN — and I was in the room when it was done.
Nkurunziza was re-elected in a general election in 2010, but using his political majority and security services, he forced a questionable third term on the country in 2015 with the support of the pliant constitutional court, which ruled that his first term was an appointment:
Nkurunziza felt he was born to rule. I don’t know if he realized the extent to which that would cause problems. Interestingly enough, in the region, leaders all said to him, Don’t do this, you’re going to end up with a war on your hands. And he said: ‘No, no, it’s all legit. It’s O.K., I’m going to do it.’ And he ended up with a war on his hands.
I fault him almost entirely because I believe very, very strongly that the right person can make or break a situation. Nyrere made Tanzania a peaceful country, and it still is today. And in Mozambique there was Joaquim Chissano [who followed Samora Machel after his death in a plane crash]. A lot of people ask why Mozambique did so well, why they are so much better than Angola [another former Portuguese colony], even though Angola had all the money. People said, ‘Mozambique had the good politics.’ I say, ‘No, Mozambique had a president who put in good policies, and made sure they were implemented.’
Nkurunziza put in bad policies. And then followed it up with bad actions. The people who objected to him demanding a third term, doing something which, under the Arusha accord, in my view, was illegal, despite the fact that the constitutional court kowtowed to him. You don’t give the wrong advice to the big man. He then turned around and said that the people who are against me are disloyal and he put the security services on them.
So now you have a fight, and it’s the state fighting the people.
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Barbara Crossette is the senior consulting editor and writer for PassBlue and the United Nations correspondent for The Nation. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations. She has also contributed to the Oxford Handbook on the United Nations.
Previously, Crossette was the UN bureau chief for The New York Times from 1994 to 2001 and previously its chief correspondent in Southeast Asia and South Asia. She is the author of “So Close to Heaven: The Vanishing Buddhist Kingdoms of the Himalayas,” “The Great Hill Stations of Asia” and a Foreign Policy Association study, “India Changes Course,” in the Foreign Policy Association’s “Great Decisions 2015.”
Crossette won the George Polk award for her coverage in India of the assassination of Rajiv Gandhi in 1991 and the 2010 Shorenstein Prize for her writing on Asia.