Landlocked in the heart of Africa with a population of just over eight million and a Gross Domestic Product of USD 700 , Burundi differentiates itself as a unique outlier among case studies of African democratic experiments. Its first attempt at a democratic transition in 1993 spiraled into a decade long bloodbath, though this latest stretch of warfare continues a history defined by cyclical violence. Often omitted from the history books, what Stephen Weissman calls “the first clear genocide since the Holocaust” ravaged this small central African state in 1972 – one of four uprising-and-repression cycles since Burundi’s independence. Delving into Burundi’s colonial history is critically important to understanding its failed democratic transition; it illuminates the precipitating causes that one may site as not conducive to democracy such as the structural factors of ethnic stratification and economic underdevelopment. However, as important as such factors were, structural determinism gives way to institutional factors: the history of Burundi’s military rule and its powerful corporate interests that it sought to protect. This, with the exploitative leveraging of structural factors, sealed Burundi’s fate.
Late in 1988, consistent with the wave of democratization that had begun sweeping through the African continent, Burundi President Pierre Buyoya initiated a top-down liberalization scheme, in the form of constitutional reform (including legal multi-party competition), ‘national unity’ measures, and relaxed restrictions on free speech. Scholars such as Floribert Ngaruko and Janvier Nkurunziza point toward precise self-interest motivations for Buyoya’s decision to take liberalization steps: “an increase in inflation…[and] the exhaustion of international reserves and monetary devaluations threatened those who relied on imports the most.” Those who purchased imports were the wealthier political elites. Taking notice from other countries across the continent, Buyoya initiated a liberalization plan anticipating that international revenue flows would follow. As Peter Schraeder would initially classify Burundi’s case, Buyoya illustrated ‘guided democratization,’ or an elite-constructed transition process, in contrast to the bottom-up movements that defined most successful transitions across Africa. In direct contrast to another francophone state, Côte d'Ivoire, whose democratic transition swept through in less than six months in response to civilian-based, bottom-up pressures, Burundi’s gradual liberalization lasted nearly five years.
Nonetheless, Buyoya paved a smooth transition to presidential and parliamentary multi-party elections deemed free and fair internationally. First, as minimal corruption among elites in power is a critical component of a democratic experiment, a ‘free and fair’ stamp of approval is perhaps the most significantly positive indicator of success. Second, only one oppositional party, Frodebu, emerged as the front-runner, creating a profoundly cohesive oppositional movement; throughout Africa, “cohesive opposition movements commonly went on to win founding elections” in contrast to fragmented oppositions which commonly lost “even where elections were held.” Burundi’s case falls under the former, again crossing another necessary threshold. Third, opposition leader Melchior Ndadaye of Frodebu defeated Buyoya by a landslide, and simultaneously took a large majority in the parliament. Buyoya conceded defeat peacefully, and as the “disposition of the losers toward the outcome of founding elections is crucial to democratization,” this marks yet another positive stage of the transition. Fourth, and perhaps most remarkably, Burundi boasted the highest voter turnout rate of all of Africa’s founding elections with 97.3% of its eligible voting population participating on election day. Finally, Buyoya launched unique initiatives relevant to the stratified ethnic landscape of Burundi,...
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