The most recent political crisis in Burundi raises some timely concerns about whether the state is poised to slip back into old patterns of escalating violence between an ethnic Hutu majority and Tutsi minority. For much of Burundi’s history, the country has been ruled by a one-party state of Tutsi-dominated military elites. Burundian leaders have had a habit of coming to power through orchestrating military coups and imposing similarly exclusionist policies along ethnic lines.
In the early 1990s, Burundian President Pierre Buyoya succumbed to domestic and international pressures to initiate democratic reforms, including multi-party elections. These reforms were quickly swept up in the chaos of the ensuing 1993 election in which Hutu politician Melchior Ndadye and his party, the Front for Democracy in Burundi (FRODEBU), won by a landslide. Defeat of the incumbent Union for National Progress (UPRONA) and associated Tutsi interests initiated tremendous backlash from Tutsi communities who viewed results as an unfair Hutu victory. Soon after, extremist factions within the Tutsi-dominated army assassinated Ndadaye and launched a coup. The assassination galvanized FRODEBU supporters and incited escalating rounds of ethnic violence from both sides, resulting in thousands of Hutu and Tutsi casualties. The ensuing civil war finally concluded with a negotiated settlement over a decade after it started. Power sharing became a central component of the final agreement as well as the strategies involved in managing the conflict.
While many peacemaking strategies aim to facilitate the bargaining process for peace and its related commitment problems (Stedman’s spoiler management, Walter’s outside enforcement), power sharing has found widespread appeal because its implementation is adaptive to the changing circumstances of reaching an agreement and governing by that settlement. Admittedly, practical implementation of power sharing has sometimes failed to live up to conceptual expectations. However, as conflict management strategies go, power sharing has the advantage of being able to identify, address and sometimes obscure different kinds of group dynamics and demands depending on what a particular negotiation calls for. Therefore, evaluating the success of power sharing in one particular instance—the Burundian Civil War—means determining how mediators used it as a tool for responding to tensions between short-term and long-term aims during peace talks.
Forms of Power Sharing
It’s helpful to conceive of power-sharing as a spectrum of institutional arrangements based on different rationalities for group behaviour under competitive conditions. Different models of power allocation will operate by different levers to move the site of ethnopolitical rivalry from the battlefield to the political arena, as well as keep it there over time. The resulting arrangement may emphasise different actors or sectors in society, as well as provide them with varying forms or degrees of power.
On one end of the power sharing spectrum are dispersive and inclusive institutions, which rely on diversifying or expanding sites of power across different actors, institutions and regions (Gates et al 2016; Brancati 2006; Lijphart 1969; Horowitz 1991). Inclusive and dispersive power sharing are effective devices for co-opting a ‘moderate core’ of elites to sign onto a peace agreement and join a transitional government where they will have significantly expanded spheres of influence. On the other side of the spectrum are constraining or ‘power dividing’ institutions, which balance the control that can be exercised by a majority in a single governmental body against several majorities in other organs. Power dividing seeks to reduce the chances that political leaders will exit a power sharing arrangement in the long-run by containing the cascade of escalation that groups can initiate through defection from the political process, thereby reducing its potential gains.
Power Sharing as Conflict Management
Despite the range of differences, power sharing models share two main dimensions of success as conflict management strategies in civil war settings: the first is to establish mutually acceptable terms by which rival groups will prefer to secure their demands through power-sharing guarantees over violent alternatives. The appeal of these postwar institutions, in theory, carries the credibility of group commitments during the transition period. The second benchmark is to build stable arrangement of postwar power sharing institutions and rules, which largely comply with the initial bargaining solution.
The juxtaposition of these two measures reveals an evident tension between short-term and long-term successes. Balancing these two dimensions is the moving target in many peace processes; tactics to bolster the likelihood of reaching a settlement generates less credible power sharing arrangements, but constraining institutions are less conducive to consensus among elites who seek to maximise their power and security.
The Arusha Peace Process
Burundi’s postwar institutions constitute an inclusive power sharing arrangement, characterised by a mutual veto, reserved legislative seats and executive positions. During the Arusha peace process, the primary objectives were to reach a settlement with adequate buy-in to end fighting in Burundi and initiate a peaceful transition. Power sharing at this stage was effectively a strategy of inclusion: negotiate a solution commensurate with the right demands for the right people in the right bargaining positions at the right time. The institutional design aspect of power sharing (whereby power dividing considerations gain prominence) necessarily took a backseat to the task of persuading elites that settlement would grant them reliable access to power within the political process without taking up arms to do it. These kinds of provisions and institutions were appealing for participating elites who would ultimately wield these newly expanded stations of control. To incorporate inclusive power sharing into the settlement, mediators at the Arusha peace process successfully aggregated divergent interests, views and levels of commitment across and within rival parties into a manageable ‘moderate core.' The resulting power sharing arrangement between ethnically mixed parties effectively de-polarised the political arena and presented an acceptable preference to continued conflict.