Was Burundi’s late president just another democrat-turned-autocrat? Making sense of African leaders beyond the “politics of the belly”

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President Nkurunziza of Burundi in London, 22 February 2012/CREDIT: Foreign and Commonwealth Office, UK
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Today’s political leaders, especially those in Africa, are often depicted as authoritarians. They seem to want power for power’s sake, and in order to get rich. Eventually, they hold onto their posts to shelter themselves and their family members from corruption and/or other criminal charges.

This stereotype of the African leader is as common among journalists as it is in think-tanks and academic circles: “The Shackled Continent: Power, Corruption, and African Lives”, “African ‘Presidents for Life’”, “Weaning African leaders off addiction to power is an ongoing struggle” are just a few sample headlines that reinforce this image.

In Africa, in particular, we find time and again the phenomenon of the political visionary who leads a liberation struggle for human rights, inclusion and dignity only to reincarnate, in some shape or form, the undemocratic political order they helped to oust. One does not need to look far to find examples of this across the continent, with Eritrea’s Isaias Afwerki or Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni just two contemporary presidents who fit the bill.

It is thus not surprising that those of us who try to make sense of this puzzle of political leadership often turn to the concept of the “politics of the belly”. And there is, no doubt, some truth in this explanation. Indeed, the cliché that “power corrupts” is confirmed by many former high-level politicians when they tell their own stories. That these individuals hold an elevated sense of their individual historical importance is likely what propelled them to take up such life-and-death political struggles in the first place.

But in our in recently published article, which zooms in on Burundi’s late president Pierre Nkurunziza, we argue that such a view reduces African leaders to little more than political entrepreneurs and provides a jaundiced vision of leadership that ignores the political realities that give rise to such leaders. It therefore fails to provide a convincing explanation of the political ideas and convictions that may animate their actions.

Why world views matter for our understanding of political leaders and their actions

Regardless of how regrettable (or indeed inexcusable) the behaviour of some presidents may be, understanding what worldview propels them to such actions is important if we are to make sense of them as political leaders, rather than as entrepreneurs. It is tempting, and indeed common, to assume that good leaders are motivated by ideas, while bad leaders are motivated by greed.

In reality, any political leader must also embody ideas that resonate with their political constituencies in order to ward off challengers and remain in power for long periods of time. As such, understanding the political thought of a country’s leader also provides a window to ideas embraced by at least some segments of the societies they govern. We say this with due recognition of the fact that power is also maintained through political violence and electoral manipulation.

Glorified liberator or dreadful oppressor?

Our analysis focuses on Nkurunziza both because he remains a poorly understood political figure and because his presidency epitomizes the puzzle of the democrat-turned-autocrat phenomenon so common on the African continent today.

On the one hand, Nkurunziza’s rebel movement, the CNDD-FDD, which has become Burundi’s current ruling party, idolizes him as the country’s liberator, particularly of its oppressed Hutu majority. On the other hand, an overwhelming image of Nkurunziza, particularly among Western-based analysts and policy institutions, not to mention among his political opponents, is that of an underperforming, autocratic leader devoid of vision who was willing to plunge his country into several violent political crises, particularly when he sought a third term in office in 2015.

These narratives are contested by those around him, attesting to Nkurunziza’s mixed legacy as a leader. Given that Nkurunziza has not left behind a substantial written record or an authorized biography, how can we best glean what ideas motivated his politics? We argue that a good place to start are his official political discourses, in which he outlined his vision and employed rhetoric as a tool in the exercise of power.

Capturing world views through speeches

Through a quantitative and qualitative analysis of Nkurunziza’s key presidential speeches, we identify the central ideas that shaped his presidency. We argue that, in contrast to many accounts of Nkurunziza’s quindecennial period in power, he held a particular and well-defined worldview, which shaped his political convictions and, by extension, his policy decisions.

This worldview, though consistent in its ideological content, grew increasingly radical, particularly after 2015, in line with the growing challenges he faced to his legitimacy both within and outside Burundi’s borders.

We identify three key themes in his speeches, namely his anti-colonial convictions; his desire to ensure unity and self-sufficiency for his country; and, his claim that his party’s coming to power incarnated a new beginning and a “true” period of independence for Burundi. Through an in-depth discussion of these three themes and their evolution over time, we show how they have shaped some of Nkurunziza’s key policy decisions.

A critique of colonialism, cast as the root of ethnic tensions in Burundi, was deeply ingrained in Nkurunziza’s thinking. With time, explicit negative rhetorical strikes at former colonial powers Belgium and Germany grew in intensity, culminating in his country’s request for an apology and reparations. This critique went hand in hand with a call for unity and economic self-sufficiency, reflected, for example, in Nkurunziza’s emphasis on—and well mediatized participation in—mandatory weekly community works, in which the population joined together to improve the provision of public services.

Finally, not unlike other liberation movements on the continent, Nkurunziza and his fellow rebel fighters framed their coming to power as a new beginning for the country that represents “true” independence, marked in this case as a clear break with the past colonial and subsequent Tutsi minority rule.

A critical question

A pertinent question is whether we may be mistaken when we infer ideological content from a discourse that could be being employed for solely instrumental purposes. In other words, to what extent did Nkurunziza say the things he did because he believed them to be true, rather than simply because they provided a useful way to silence legitimate criticism?

There is, of course, no way to prove this one way or another – the only person that could know definitively was Nkurunziza himself. Our take is that, as with all leaders, Nkurunziza’s political speech contains elements of both. But it is precisely the consistency of certain themes in Nkurunziza’s public discourse over the fifteen-year period of his presidency that makes us suggest that they reflect, at least to some degree, his genuinely held worldviews.

A related issue is the possible discrepancy between rhetoric and action. What political leaders say and do is not always aligned, and may even be contradictory. Thus, Nkurunziza may be championing Burundi’s self-sufficiency in his speech, while the policies of his government might be keeping the country in poverty, or he might be preaching unity while violently pursuing opponents. Our aim here was not to measure discourse against action – as much as this would also constitute an important research undertaking when analyzing Nkurunziza’s legacy. Instead, our aim has been to show that Nkurunziza’s speeches were not just empty rhetoric, and that at least some of their ideological components translated into concrete policies on the ground.

Overall, then, our article aims to make several contributions to the study of African Politics. First, as stated above, our research challenges the often binary representation of African leaders as either autocrats or democrats, despots or champions of political change. Second, our research shows how discourse analysis of political speeches can reveal concrete ideas of world leaders that we need to take seriously if we are to understand their political actions.

With this endeavour, we join the objective of the “Ideas in African Politics network” to advance the study of the history of African political thought as well as how political ideas shape attitudes, beliefs, behaviours, actions and institutions.

Andrea Filipi (@ajkawolf) is a PhD candidate @Dept_of_POLIS @Cambridge_Uni and an Associate Research Fellow @EgmontInstitute

Katrin Wittig (@KatrinWittig) is a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Post-Doctoral Research Fellow @Dept_of_POLIS @Cambridge_Uni

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