Thought and Ideas
Rwanda and Burundi: Neighbours worlds apart
Posted Sunday, July 22 2012 at 01:00
The other side of the story. A tour of Rwanda and Burundi is a journey through different lessons; a journey through a world worlds apart; a journey through different leadership styles and visions, writes Charles Omondi
The two eastern African neighbours share a common history, having both been colonised by Germany and later Belgium which granted them independence in 1962. Their geographical extent and population compositions and sizes are more or less them same. Rwanda is the home of 13 million inhabitants while Burundi’s population stands at 10 million people of largely Hutu and Tutsi extraction.
In both countries, the two communities have had a history of mutual hostility, the high point being the Rwanda genocide of 1994 in which no less than 800,000 Tutsis and their sympathisers were killed by Hutu extremists.
Rwanda and Burundi are landlocked and depend largely on the East Africa coast for trade with the rest of the world. They are largely agricultural economies with coffee and tea contributing a substantial share of their foreign earnings. Banana is a staple diet in both countries and the crop dominates the landscape.
Both Rwanda and Burundi are highly mountainous and are currently contending with immense population pressure. Such is the gravity of the matter that the Rwandese parliament is debating on law to allow cremation as a way of easing pressure on the land.
The road connecting Rwanda and Burundi is a highway around many hills through numerous valleys. It is narrow; a single lane on either side, but smooth all the way. The challenging terrain becomes more pronounced as one approaches Bujumbura, located at a much lower elevation on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The highway is like Kenya’s Limuru – Mai Mahiu stretch, many times over. It could also pass for the Kabarnet – Eldoret stretch in the north Rift.
Many times, motorists on the highway find themselves at the mercy of commercial truck drivers without whose total cooperation, they must crawl at a snail’s pace.
Luckily, it is not a particularly busy highway. However, cyclists who tag on to trailers on the Burundi side are not only a nuisance, but also a real danger.
Both Rwanda and Burundi are members of the regional bloc, the East Africa Community (EAC) and that is probably where the similarities end.
Whereas Rwanda seems to have made and continues to make great strides towards transforming into a modern state, the type that African elites are fixated with, but unwilling to work to create, Burundi remains faithful to the ‘African way’ where poor leadership and the resultant poor quality life are acceptable.
The Burundi leadership, like that of most other sub-Saharan states, seems long on empty rhetoric, but short on tangible positive changes on the ground.
You enter Bujumbura and the disorder and apparent lack of national discipline that greets you is a stack reminder that you are in a true African city.
In Rwanda, there seems to be a revolution that has transformed the national psyche, like has rarely been seen in post-colonial Africa.
The Paul Kagame-led state, a former Francophone republic, is now a member of the Commonwealth of Nations, with English elevated to an official language and a medium of instruction in schools. The state-owned daily, The New Times, publishes in English and there are a number of other English publications in circulation.
Burundi remains Francophone, the only one in the EAC bloc. In Burundi, one would be lucky to stumble upon any publication in English. Newspapers are either in French or local languages. Iwacu, the leading Burundi weekly, has a few pages dedicated to foreign news, in English.
Whereas President Kagame is an aggressive and charismatic leader, who has established himself as a critical player in regional, continental and even global affairs, his Burundi counterpart Pierre Nkurunziza, is rather laid back internationally where he is little known and is rarely heard of.
The Kagame government also stands tall in women empowerment, not only compared to Burundi, but also the world over.
Women constitute at least 50 per cent of representation in both parliament and the Cabinet in Rwanda.
The Rwanda vehicle registration style is in harmony with that of EAC founding members; Kenya and Uganda, and Tanzania, to some extent. Burundi format is distinctively different. It comprises a little national flag with BU at the bottom, on the side of which stands an alphabetical letter, that would be at the end in the rest of EAC, then a four-figure numerical (1234) followed by another alphabetical letter.