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Colonialism and rehabilitation (payments): what does Burundi itself expect?

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In Burundi, a former Belgian mandate area, the colonial past has been on the political agenda for some time. The senate recently formulated a number of concrete recommendations. According to Stef Vandeginste (University of Antwerp), the members of the Belgian special parliamentary committee can learn something from the Burundian interpretation of the term ‘recovery’.

Restorative payments are perhaps the hot potato for the special parliamentary committee that examines the Belgian colonial past. Until today, the public debate has focused on two questions: are reparations expedient (or even mandatory, for moral or legal reasons) and, if so, how can the payments benefit the population, not the political elite?

What is largely missing from the debate so far is the expectations of the Congolese, Rwandan and Burundian authorities. Burundi proves that the debate is indeed going on there. There, a truth and reconciliation commission will also consider the colonial past in the coming months.

Herero and Nama prisoners around 1904 in what is now Namibia.  (afp / National Archives of Namibia)
Herero and Nama prisoners around 1904 in what is now Namibia. 
(afp / National Archives of Namibia)

The Burundian senate has now also spoken out on the matter. Why the interest of the Burundian senate? And what demands are being put on the table by the senate? 

It is worth taking a closer look at the Burundian recommendations and including them in our debates. These recommendations show once again that reparation for colonial injustice includes more for Burundi than just reparations.

Former mandate area

The statues of Leopold II have never been the subject of discussion in Burundi.

It was Germany that, from 1896, colonized Burundi as part of German East Africa, which also included present-day Tanzania and Rwanda. After the German defeat in World War I and the Treaty of Versailles, the German colonies were divided. The League of Nations gave Belgium the mandate over the Ruanda-Urundi area. After World War II, this was recognized by the United Nations as a Belgian guardianship area. On July 1, 1962, two years after Congolese independence, Burundi and Rwanda became two separate independent states.

In Burundi, requests for redress for colonial injustice logically turn to Germany, Belgium and, to a lesser extent, the United Nations. Because Burundi was never part of the ‘playground’ of Leopold II, Congo Free State, the statues of Leopold II have never – not even recently, after the worldwide Black Lives Matter demonstrations – been the subject of discussion in Burundi. How did the theme end up on the political agenda?

2015: crisis between Burundi and Belgium

The demand for redress for colonial injustice was not placed on the Burundian political agenda by citizens. The concrete reason for the Burundian senate to study and denounce the colonial past was the severe crisis in bilateral relations between Burundi and Belgium in 2015. President Pierre Nkurunziza then aspired to a third term, which went against the Arusha peace agreement and thousands demonstrators on the street.

The Burundian government saw a Belgian hand behind the previously unseen demonstrations against Nkurunziza and the failed coup attempt on May 13, 2015. Belgium was also blamed as the driving force behind the European aid sanctions against Burundi, which are still valid today. A breakdown of diplomatic relations was barely prevented.

The theme became a barometer for the political relations between our country and the former guardianship area.

A year earlier, in May 2014, parliament set up a Truth and Reconciliation Commission (CVR). At the time, the colonial past was not addressed in the assignment of the CVR. The committee would consider the period from independence, on July 1, 1962, to the end of the civil war in 2008.

Moreover, it was a deliberate choice of the Burundian legislator to keep the investigation into the Belgian involvement in the murder of Prince Louis Rwagasore, the great champion of Burundian independence, outside the remit of the CVR on 13 October 1961. “We don’t want to offend donors,” the former Burundian foreign minister told me at the time. 

Fueled by the diplomatic crisis between Belgium and Burundi, the theme developed into a barometer for the political relations between our country and the former guardianship area. 

The senate is stirring

President Nkurunziza was then re-elected in 2015. And while the diplomatic crisis with Belgium continued, the Burundian senate organized a number of meetings. She was supported in this by an academic expert group.

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The central theme was the colonial past and, in particular, the question of how an administrative reform in 1929 stirred up the ethnic opposition between Hutu and Tutsi. A question that is also of interest to the Belgian special parliamentary committee. In March 2018 and July 2020, the meetings were each concluded with a communiqué containing a number of concrete recommendations.

In March 2018, the senate proposed expanding the CVR’s remit. In November of that year, parliament passed a new law whereby the CVR would henceforth also consider the entire colonial period, including the murder of Rwagasore.

Not only the mandate, but also the composition of the committee has since been changed. No longer Jean-Louis Nahimana , who is now part of the expert group of the Belgian Special Parliament Committee, but the more law-abiding former chairman of the electoral committee, Pierre-Claver Ndayicariye  , is in charge of the CVR today.

Even though the new CVR is the subject of criticism, including from part of the Burundian diaspora in Belgium, it does not seem possible and undesirable to me that the special parliamentary committee should not take into account the partly overlapping activities of the Burundian CVR. In any case, a collaboration is imperative. 

Recovery

In addition, the senate also put a wide range of recovery demands on the table in its communiqués of March 2018 and July 2020. These are mainly addressed to the original colonial power, Germany, and Belgium.

A first form of recovery, according to the senate, consists of a formal recognition of the colonial injustice and a request for forgiveness from the Burundian people. In his expression of regret on June 30, 2020, on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of Congolese independence, King Philippe spoke only about Congo, but not about Burundi and Rwanda. 

The Senate is also calling for colonial-era archives to be repatriated to Burundi. Partly on the basis of those archives, the senate is asking for the reopening of the investigation into the murder of Rwagasore.

All these forms of recovery entail relatively limited costs.

A team of Burundian, Belgian and German experts has to investigate how colonial rule was at the root of the later ethnic division in Burundi. How that division can be overcome must be the next question to be answered.

Belgium is also asked to make a financial contribution so that education in Burundi, at all levels, can devote more attention to the colonial past. The Burundian senate also asks that Belgian schools teach the colonial past.

According to the senate, old colonial legislation that still applies today must be mapped out and subsequently amended, with Belgian support. 

All these forms of recovery entail relatively limited costs. Recovery is clearly more than reparations. These proposals can undoubtedly provide inspiration to our special parliamentary committee.

43 billion dollars for 424 cows

However, the senate also calls to demand reparations from Belgium and Germany. If possible, these payments are arranged by diplomatic agreement, if necessary by judicial means.

The converted current value of the cows would be approximately $ 43 billion.

The only concrete demand for payment that has already been calculated is somewhat striking. On June 6, 1903, a treaty between the Burundian king  Mwezi Gisabo and Germany stipulated that the king had to give up 424 cows as ‘penance’ for his years of struggle against the German occupier.

117 years later, the Burundian senate is now asking for a reparation payment. The converted current value of the cows would be approximately $ 43 billion. Yes, it really is there. The calculation was made by a professor of economics from the Université du Burundi . He took into account the likely descendants of the cows and the usual mortality rates, but did not even take into account the social value of cows. Traditionally, cows are often part of an important dowry.

The sky-high amount contrasts sharply with the € 10 million reparation payment that Germany offered to its other former colony, Namibia. That payment served to make up for the suffering caused by the genocide on the Herero between 1904 and 1908. However, Namibia refused the offer a few days ago. 

This concrete demand illustrates the fact that quantified claims for reparations threaten to complicate the debate between Belgium and the former colony and mandate areas.

Collaboration is imperative

The Belgian colonial past is already the subject of research and debate in Burundi, as well as political instrumentalization. Unlike in Congo and Rwanda, there is already a Truth and Reconciliation Commission with the express task of scrutinizing the colonial period.

Formulating unrealistic financial claims risks closing that door back.

A carefully thought-out cooperation with the Burundian government is imperative. However, the complaints of the Burundian diaspora in Belgium must be duly taken into account. 

It is to the credit of the Burundian senate to give a broad meaning to the concept of recovery. This seems to open the door for a dialogue between Burundi and its former colonial rulers on what constitutes appropriate remedial action. These measures can take different forms and do not necessarily have major financial implications.

However, by formulating unrealistic financial claims, the senate runs the risk of immediately closing that door back. At the same time, however, the context also teaches us that demands for reparations are also and above all a mirror of the bilateral relations between the countries involved, rather than an expression of noble moral principles or legal obligations. An improvement of those relations, for example in response to the (imminent?) End of the European aid sanctions, will perhaps create a friendlier climate in which to discuss the colonial past between the Belgian and Burundian authorities.

Dr. Stef Vandeginste is associate professor at the  Institute for Development Policy of the University of Antwerp.

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