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Burundi Pressed To Abandon Outdated Ethnic Quotas



Stef Vandeginste a professor at the University of Antwerp has proposed to Burundi to drop ethnic quota system saying it is not relevant in the current situation.

On February 6, on the occasion of the celebration of National Unity Day, the President of the Senate declared that he wanted to launch a national debate on the elimination or not of the ethnic balance quotas contained in the Agreement of Arusha.

Prof.Vandeginste says that this is the right time for Burundians to begin debating about the ethnic quota arrangement.

The Constitution of June 7, 2018, article 289, grants a period of 5 years to the Senate to evaluate the system of ethnic quotas in the executive, the legislative and the judiciary in order to put an end to it or to maintain it.

Another provision in this article also contained in the Constitution of March 18, 2005, concerning the defense and security forces. The Constitution imposes a maximum of 50% of members of these bodies belonging to a particular ethnic group “for a period to be determined by the Senate” (article 263).

Asked whether he thinks this is the right time to lift the quotas, as the President of the Senate has suggested, Prof.Vandeginste explains that it is difficult for him to assess the advisability of maintaining or abolishing these quotas.

“What seems important to me is to clearly define the evaluation criteria, which are not specified in the Constitution,” he says.

“It would be useful to evaluate the quota system according to its objectives. Why were they introduced? To better understand the rationale for ethnic quotas, we must therefore go back in time, to the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement of August 28, 2000 and the preparatory work for the 2005 Constitution,” he adds.

The ethnic quota system aimed at achieving among others: organizing an equitable sharing of power, ensuring the representation of ethnic segments in public institutions, guaranteeing their physical safety, remedying exclusion, correcting existing imbalances, preventing acts of genocide and coups d’etat, etc.

Prof.Vandeginste wonders whether these objectives been (sufficiently) achieved.

This seems to be the ‘evaluation grid’ that is essential for this exercise that the Senate must carry out.

He also argues that it should be taken into account that at the level of the judiciary, quotas were only introduced in 2018 (Article 213). Do they no longer have a reason to exist, 5 years later?

Controversially, Burundi’s President of the Senate argues that there is only one “ethnic group in Burundi: the Burundian ethnic group”.
However, political observers fear a dynamic of politico-ethnic exclusion caused by the removal of these ethnic balance quotas.

According to the Charter of National Unity of February 5, 1991, it provides that the Burundian people “demonstrate a cultural homogeneity rarely equaled”. It adds that the quality of Murundi must take precedence over ethnic, regional or clan labels.

However, at the same time, ethnic groups are indeed a reality on the ground.

President Evariste Ndayishimiye in his speech of February 6, 2023 in Gitega, recalled that, a few months after the adoption of the Charter, killings based on ethnic identities have once again reproduced.

Prof.Vandeginste notes that like history of many other countries, the history of Burundi demonstrates that ethnic groups can be constructed, become a reality and, above all, can be exploited, sometimes with extremely violent consequences.

Ethnic groups can also – but with much more difficulty – be deconstructed, especially in a context of cultural, linguistic and religious homogeneity.

“I don’t know if Burundi has already reached this stage. The existence of ethnic groups does not prevent their peaceful coexistence. This depends on the institutional framework and the possible instrumentalization of the ethnic fact for political ends,” he explains.

The academician also argues that the absence (or the alleged absence) of ethnic diversity can also be politically exploited. By way of comparison, for example, it is no coincidence that in Rwanda, the Constitution does not recognize the ethnic diversity of the population.

It is only Burundi’s senate in charge of evaluating the ethnic quota system.

“This makes perfect sense given Burundi’s recent constitutional history. Here again, the Arusha Accord can help us understand better. An ethnically equal senate (50% Hutu and 50% Tutsi, not to mention the co-option of three senators from the Twa ethnic group) and endowed with significant powers was created there. During the Arusha negotiations, the creation of such a Senate was strongly supported by the dominant parties,” he says.

If the Senate ever suggests the deletion of quotas – in part or in all sectors – it will be necessary to review the Constitution to effectively put an end to it. The initiative belongs to the President of the Republic.

Then, after the entry into force of the revised constitution, several codes and laws will be amended. I am thinking in particular of the electoral code.

According to the academician, it remains to be seen if, in 2025, the election of deputies and senators as well as the formation of the new government will take place with or without ethnic quotas. The process will still take a long time and it seems important to me that Burundians give their opinions on this important issue, including through the media.

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