Ethnic access to power and jobs - even when based on law - is bad for inclusion

Tuesday January 22 2019


More by this Author

On January 12, The EastAfrican published an interesting story titled “Foreign NGOs leave Burundi as ethnicity law takes effect.”

The story stated: “Some foreign non-governmental organisations in Burundi recently closed their offices after failing to comply with the country’s laws” requiring recruitment of staff based on ethnicity.

This follows a decision in September 2018 by Maj-Gen Silas Ntigurirwa, the secretary of the National Security Council to suspend foreign NGOs for three months for failure to implement ethnic recruitment law.

Article 148 of Burundi’s constitution requires ethnic representation in the public sector of 60 per cent Hutus and 40 per cent Tutsis. The civil society strongly opposes applying this law in their sector.

Tharcisse Niyongabo, the spokesperson for Interior Ministry, was quoted as saying, “The NGOs that are not capable of conforming to the law do not have any place in Burundi.”

Why would it be good to access jobs in the political and public sectors based on ethnicity but bad to do the same in NGOs and UN agencies?

Diplomats and officials from the aid industry believe sharing power and jobs based on ethnicity helps address imbalances and political exclusions of the past but they are mute when one asks them why that policy would be bad to apply in aid agencies and civil society.

In reality however, history shows that recruitment in politics or in the job market based on ethnicity or tribe or race has NEVER really addressed equality or fair access, especially where the initiator is the one controlling political power. Instead, ethnic, tribal and racial quotas, where they have ever been initiated, served as tools of exclusion rather than inclusion.

That was the policy in apartheid South Africa, during Habyarimana’s regime in Rwanda and during the Tutsi dominated governments in Burundi from independence up to the power-sharing government of 2005.

In other words, this law of ethnic quotas isn’t new; if anything, it seeks to solidify ethnic politics that disorganised Burundi (and Africa) since independence and continue to ail her!

Broadly then, the legal requirement of recruitment based on ethnicity isn’t really about fair access to jobs but ethnicising civil society without making it merit- or competent-based.

While this policy serves to solidify the politics of ethnic entitlement that’s already implemented in the political realm, it will also kill innovation, competence and self-drive to do better since all one needs to get a job is ethnicity.

Analytically, this is President Nkurunziza’s way of trying to create a permanent ethnic majority supporting his government not because it’s implementing impersonal policies good for all citizens, but because individuals are accessing jobs due to their ethnicity and can thank him for it.

Broadly, this is one of the main mistakes most African leaders made after independence: Seeking to ethnicise (or tribalise) access to power and jobs instead of democratizing power as Prof Mahmood Mamdan has variously argued.

That’s, for example what president Gregoire Kayibanda did after independence in Rwanda and his successor Juvenal Habyarimana did:.

The fact that ethnic access to power and jobs is publicly defended by senior government officials as legally and morally good turns ethnic groups into explosive political identities that are permanent.

When individuals can legally claim rights, and opportunities like jobs on the basis of their ethnicities, social identities are weaponised and become political identities and objects of exclusion or inclusion.

Therefore, like former president Habyarimana, Nkurunziza is inaugurating a political system based on “Hutu Power,” where Hutus will have a permanent majority to rule not based on ideas but on how they were born.

In other words, while Tutsi leaders like Jean Baptist Bagaza, Michel Michombero and Pierre Buyoya put in place a Tutsi-dominated political system based on marginalising Hutus, Nkurunziza is replacing this repressive system with another this time dominated by Hutus!

The problem is that such oppressive ethnic systems aren’t sustainable as the Burundi of Buyoya and the Rwanda of Habyarimana illustrate.

The danger is that when such ethnic political systems are challenged and fear losing power, they resort to extreme measures like genocide or mass killings as Rwanda of Habyarimana teaches us.

Christopher Kayumba is a senior lecturer, School of Journalism and Communication, NUR, and lead consultant, MGC Consult International Ltd, E-mail:; twitter account: @Ckayumba Website: