Institutional Engineering, Management of Ethnicity, and Democratic Failure in Burundi

Filip Reyntjens


This article argues that constitutional engineering along consociational lines in Burundi – explicitly accommodating ethnicity rather than attempting to suppress it – was instrumental in reducing the political role of ethnicity, but that other endogenous and exogenous factors also played a role. After surveying developments since 1988, this article focuses on the 2005 polls. The outcome of the parliamentary elections suggests that the “disappearance of the ethnic factor,” extolled by many at the time, was achieved by constitutional constraints rather than by social or political dynamics. Nevertheless, with regard to the country’s most important and lethal historical problem, the ethnic divide, constitutional engineering has proved hugely effective. Burundi’s main cleavage is now between (and within) parties rather than ethnic groups, and when violence occurs it is political rather than ethnic. Burundi’s current crisis is therefore not a failure of consociationalism but of democracy.

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