Let Burundians fight it out, says Mwenda; he may have a point

Saturday December 19 2015

Early this past week, Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda came up with an idea that struck many as shocking, to say the least.

He suggested that the best help Burundi could get at the moment would be for the protagonists in the ongoing violence to be left to fight it out until a victor emerges and assumes responsibility for restoring peace and political stability.

Mwenda is no stranger to controversy. Earlier on, he had set out to disrupt the cosy consensus that has emerged around how great and refreshing Tanzania’s new president, John Magufuli is — by suggesting that he is destined to fail, not least because the way he is going about pursuing change in his country, outside state institutions, is problematic.

Magufuli’s fans in Uganda had a lot to say in response, none of it complimentary. That Mwenda is reported to be “close” to other leaders whom critics accuse of undermining or destroying state institutions did not help.

To make matters worse, it is only a few weeks ago that some Ugandans accused him of “supporting” corruption. It followed an argument he put forth, that corruption does not necessarily hinder economic growth or development.

On the contrary, he argued, some of the world’s strongest economies were built on foundations of what today is denounced as corruption but whose manifestations at the time were perfectly legitimate or socially acceptable. He marshalled evidence to back it all up, but such is the level of revulsion at corruption in Uganda that few paid it any attention.


His proposal for what to do about Burundi was just as certain to provoke and offend. It is not the kind of argument to be put forward so openly when most Burundians are worried sick about their own physical safety and that of their loved ones, and when all that the world sees coming out of Burundi are images of corpses of people said to have been murdered in cold blood, allegedly by security forces propping up discredited politicians who will stop at nothing to ensure they remain in power. Which is why Mwenda became the target of much vituperation.

No doubt, critics of his suggested approach have a point. But so does he if one were to look carefully at how countries that were once caught up in cyclical violent conflict such as Burundi have fared since the guns fell silent following protracted civil wars.

There is a fairly clear pattern showing that in those countries where clear victors emerged by sheer firepower, the tendency has been for them to go on and experience prolonged periods of peace and stability and steady, if at times messy, post-war reconstruction.

Caveats are in order, however. This usually happens where the victors are magnanimous enough to craft post-war political dispensations that are inclusive of potential rivals in sufficiently meaningful ways to ensure that they do not become disruptive. And, of course, the durability of such elite pacts depends on the extent to which all sides commit to honouring their end of the bargain.

At the other end of the spectrum are countries where hostilities end in stalemate, leading to messy compromises, often mediated by internationally mandated conflict resolution experts, that produce governments of national unity or other post-war settlements to which none of the protagonists is fully committed.

The outcomes are “frozen conflicts” that soon enough end up in new hostilities. The return to hostilities is rendered relatively easy by the absence of a dominant actor that can impose order and set the terms of co-operation to which defeated or weaker rivals can sign up and commit.

If countries such as Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burundi, South Sudan and the Central African Republic remain fundamentally unstable and violence-prone, it is because the political groups in power are too weak to gain full control of the state and prevent rivals from causing regular disruptions, or if they are dominant, are too fractured internally for such a prospect to be realistic.

And if countries such as Ethiopia, South Africa, Uganda and Rwanda have established a reputation for political stability and not relapsed into all-out violent conflict, it is because at the helm are political organisations that, for better or worse, have successfully asserted their authority and tried, with varying degrees of success and using different mechanisms, of course, to build post-war societies that are more inclusive than was previously the case.

The ANC in South African may not have defeated the apartheid regime, but it drove it into capitulation and eventual disappearance.

There is no suggestion that these countries are problem-free or that they are permanently immune to violent conflict. However, their experience points to the general validity of Mwenda’s argument, even if, applied to Burundi, it is too horrifying to contemplate given that it appears as if the state is fighting unarmed civilians.

Frederick Golooba-Mutebi is a Kampala- and Kigali-based researcher and writer on politics and public affairs. E-mail: [email protected]