Burundi – the political contours of a troubled nation


The Republic of Burundi, independent since 1962, has suffered serious inter-ethnic tensions between Hutu and Tutsi peoples since they met in the Great Lakes Region around the 16th century. Yet very little is known about Burundi. Consequently it does not get the attention and assistance it deserves.

Until the PALIPEHUTU-FNL rebel group laid down its arms and joined the government of national unity in 2008, Burundi and her people went through phases marked by Tutsi domination (who constitute 15 percent of the total population) and exploitation of Hutu (who constitute 85 percent of the population), political assassinations, military coups, genocides (1972 and 1993), economic sanctions, civil wars, negotiations, elections and forming a national government and finally in 2008 ending of all hostilities.

Since 2000, the people of Burundi are trying to forgive the past and forge new relationships among all peoples for a peaceful, prosperous and stable country. They held successful elections in 2005 and formed a government of national unity. They are now in the process of another round of elections later this year. The situation is still fragile and Burundi and her people need all the support they can get. Before we offer help and especially how much, it is essential that we have an idea about the political history of this country and the magnitude of the challenges.

In the interest of time and space we shall consider the period since 1961 when the assassination of prime minister designate Ganwa (Prince) Louis Rwagasore opened a can of worms. Specifically, we shall focus on the political developments in 1961, 1965, 1972, 1988, 1993, 2000, 2003, 2005 and 2008.

Independence and the bloodbath that followed

The end of WWII, the birth of the United Nations in 1945 and the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 initiated or intensified demands for independence based on democracy and majority rule. Burundi joined the bandwagon and began preparations for self-rule and then independence. Two parties the Parti Democratate Chretien (PDC) and Parti de l’Union et du Progres National (UPRONA) were founded. The two parties were led by young, dynamic and western educated people led by Batare and Bezi competing royal families. UPRONA was led by the king’s eldest son, Ganwa (Prince) Louis Rwagasore, a western educated intellectual. He was a very popular leader who had the support of both Tutsi and Hutu. Because he had a Hutu wife and physically looked much closer to the standard Hutu stereotype than Tutsi, he had a special appeal to Hutu the overwhelming majority in the country but was not a favorite of the Belgian colonizers.

Despite roadblocks placed in his way by the colonial authorities including arrest and imprisonment, Rwagasore was able upon release to rally massive support and to win the legislative elections of September 1961 with 80 percent of the votes cast and 53 seats out of 64 in the legislative assembly. As prime minister designate he began to focus on how to govern an independent state. Sadly, on October 13, he was assassinated by a hired Greek gunman named Jean Kageorgis in a PDC plot. Apart from an irreparable loss of leadership, the assassination of Rwagasore destroyed the ethnic cohesion he had carefully constructed, reopening the historical Hutu-Tutsi conflicts. There followed a crisis of leadership within the ruling UPRONA party causing a bitter struggle between Hutu and Tutsi for leadership of the party. The Crown entered the political arena to keep the country stable.

During the 1963-64 period political conflicts revolved around the Crown, the Monrovia (radical) group of Hutu and the Casablanca (conservative) group of Tutsi. In the process the king withdrew support from the Tutsi Prime Minister (Albin Nyamoya) in favor of a Hutu (Pierre Ngendandumwe) who was assassinated by a Tutsi refugee three days after taking office – another terrible setback.

New elections

It was decided that the impasse should be ended by fresh legislative elections which were held in May 1965 and won by Hutu with 23 legislative seats out of 33. Instead of appointing a Hutu prime minister, the king selected a Tutsi (Leopold Biha). An angry group of Hutu in the army and gendarmerie assassinated the prime minister. The Tutsi who dominated the armed forces used this opportunity to punish the Hutu. There followed extensive purges of the army and gendarmerie and physical elimination of every Hutu leader thereby making power the exclusive monopoly of the Tutsi. The king found himself in untenable position and fled the country. On March 24, 1966, the king issued a decree conferring special powers to his heir apparent Prince Charles Ndizeye to coordinate and control the activities of the government. On July 8, 1966 Ngizeye formally became king (Mwami) as Ntare III. The king ruled for a short time. He was overthrown on November 28, 1966 and assassinated in 1972. Following the king’s overthrow by the Tutsi in the army, Burundi became a republic.

The first genocide in the Great Lakes Region

The next tragic landmark in Burundi was the genocide of 1972 the first recorded case of genocide in the Great Lakes Region of Africa. It resulted in the death of between 200,000 and 300,000 Hutu. The killings committed by Tutsi were in response to an alleged abortive Hutu insurrection. The Tutsi believed they had delivered a ‘Final Solution’ to the Hutu problem and could live in peace and prosperity thereafter!

The international community came out in full support of the Tutsi genocidaires. Here are a few illustrative examples. On May 22, 1972, the then Secretary General of the Organization of African Unity (OAU) Diallo Telli visited Burundi and said “The OAU being essentially an organization based on solidarity, my presence here in Bujumbura signifies the total solidarity of the Secretariat [of the OAU] with the President of Burundi, and with the government and the fraternal people of Burundi”.

On May 30, 1972, the diplomatic corps delivered the following message to President Micombero “As true friends of Burundi we have followed with anguish and concern the events of the last few weeks. We are thus comforted by your appointment of the group of ‘wise men’ to pacify the country, and by the orders that you have given to repress the arbitrary actions of individuals and groups, and acts of private vengeance and excesses of authority”. The group of ‘wise men’ then sent 100,000 Hutu to their graves.

The Secretary-General of the United Nations expressed his, “fervent hopes that peace, harmony, and stability can be brought about successfully and speedily, that Burundi will thereby achieve the goals of social progress, better standard of living and other ideals and principles set forth in the UN Charter” (Samuel Totten et al, 2004).

The sixteen years of peace and tranquility following the genocide of 1972, were broken by Hutu-Tutsi ethnic tensions that erupted in Ntega and Maranga in 1988. The Tutsi-dominated army was dispatched to restore order. Large-scale massacres of Hutu people were committed. It is estimated that between 15,000 and 20,000 people were killed. Afterwards a group of Hutu intellectuals were arrested for protesting against the army’s brutal actions and for demanding the establishment of an independent inquiry into the massacres.

Inter-ethnic conflicts continued unabated and in 1991 between 1,000 and 3,000 people are believed to have lost their lives. In the same year, the security forces arrested and detained some Hutu thought to be members of the Parti de liberation du peuple Hutu (PALIPEHUTU), the principal Hutu opposition party. Their arrest and detention was in connection with the allegation of “incitement to massacre” which was denounced by Amnesty International. 1992 went down as a year of heightened tensions and killings particularly in Bujumbura capital city and north and north-west parts of the country.

Elections and assassination of the president

The democratic wind of change that began in the 1990s forced the president to announce in February 1993 that presidential and legislative elections would take place in June of the same year. The presidential elections were held on June 1 and won by Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu of the Front pour la democratie au Burundi (FRODEBU) with 64.8 percent of the votes cast. On June 29, legislative elections were also held. FRODEBU emerged as the leading party winning 75 percent of the votes cast and taking 65 of the 81 legislative seats. On July 10, Ndadaye was sworn in as the first ever Hutu Head of State. He appointed as Prime Minister Ms. Sylvie Kinigi from the Tutsi ethnic group – to strike an ethnic balance.

Some people, many in the armed forces, did not like this historic change. On October 21, 1993, barely four months after the swearing in, army troops arrested and killed the president and other prominent Hutu leaders, including the president’s constitutional successor, the speaker of the national assembly. The attempted coup failed and the civilian government was restored. In January 1994, the constitution was amended to allow the assembly to elect a new president. Accordingly, Cyprien Ntaryamira was so elected. Anatole Kanyenkiko from the opposition party was appointed prime minister – again to strike a political balance.

The assassination of Ndadaye forced some members of FRODEBU to start a Hutu rebellion “Conseil National pour la Defense de la Democratie (CNDD) and ultimately the armed wing, the Forces pour la Defense de la Democratie (FDD). Ethnic tensions escalated in 1993 leading to the deaths of some 100,000 people mostly Hutu, hence the second genocide in Burundi’s history. By the end of 1997, Burundian courts had handed down 220 death sentences to those found guilty of committing genocide in 1993 (Europa Publications 1999 Africa South of the Sahara). Killings continued and it is estimated that another 100,000 people lost their lives between 1994 and 2000.

Plane crash and the death of two Hutu presidents

On April 6, 1994, while returning from a summit in Tanzania, Ntaryamira and Habyarimana, Rwanda’s president perished in a plane crash in Rwanda. Sylvester Ntibatunganya was elected interim president until elections were held. The security situation did not allow presidential elections to take place. It was decided that a new president should be elected by a broadly representative commission. A new agreement on power-sharing was hammered out for a four-year transition period and the constitution was amended accordingly in September 1994. On September 30 the convention elected Ntibantunganya among seven candidates to the presidency and was immediately endorsed by the National Assembly. E began work as president on October 1. On October 3 Anatole Kanyenkiko was reappointed prime minister.

Buyoya becomes president again following a military coup

On July 25, 1996 a military coup occurred and Buyoya became president again. Regional leaders condemned the coup. They then met in Tanzania and agreed to impose severe sanctions if the constitutional government was not returned to power. In August Buyoya met with Nyerere but failed to secure a relaxation of sanctions with serious socio-economic repercussions.

Negotiations, compromise and a new constitution

Earlier in 1995 African leaders from the Great Lakes Region met in Cairo (Egypt) at the request of the Secretary-General of the United Nations to discuss Burundi. They announced a regional initiative to begin negotiations for a peaceful settlement with the late Nyerere as the principal mediator until he passed on. Mandela succeeded Nyerere as the principal mediator.

A combination of carrots and sticks (diplomatic efforts and sanctions) led to some compromise. On June 6, 1998 the transitional constitution between government and FRODEBU was promulgated. Under this constitution the national assembly was expanded from 81 to 121 members and two posts of vice president were created. Further negotiations for a ceasefire took place between 1998 and 2000.

On August 28, 2000 at Arusha in Tanzania an Agreement on Peace and Reconciliation was signed by 19 political parties. However major Hutu rebel groups refused to lay down their weapons. On November 1, 2000 a Transitional government was established on the basis of the Arusha agreement and in accordance with the provisions of the transitional constitution. A 36-month interim government was agreed upon with Buyoya serving the first 18 months. On April 30, 2003 Buyoya handed over the presidency to Domitien Ndayizeye for the balance of the term.

On October 8 and November 2, 2003 protocols on political, defense and security power-sharing were signed in Pretoria (South Africa). These protocols led to the global ceasefire agreement between the transitional government and the CNDD-FDD. On January 6, 2004 a joint army command was established comprising officers from the government army and CNDD-FDD.

In 2005 national elections were held and won by the CNDD-FDD with other smaller parties that formed a coalition government with Pierre Nkuriziza as President with two Vice-Presidents.

In 2008, the parti pour la liberation du people Hutu and its military wing, the forces nationales pour la liberation (PALIPEHUTU-FNL) laid down its weapons and joined the national unity government, formally ending all hostilities.

Summing up

Since independence in 1962, Burundi has been riding on a very rough political road with many casualties including two genocides of 1972 and 1993. Stories coming out of country indicate that both Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups are exhausted and have lost interest in fighting. They have realized that there is no ‘Final Solution’ except to enter into dialogue for mutual benefit, notwithstanding some remnants that still cause trouble like the recently foiled plan to overthrow the government.

They have worked out a formula that every party must have significant representation from the two ethnic groups to avoid future ethnic problems. It has also been arranged in the constitution that when a Hutu is president, the vice-president (or first vice-president because currently there are two vice-presidents) will be a Tutsi and vice versa.

The country is in the midst of organizing multi-party elections at the local, parliamentary and presidential levels scheduled in the second half of 2010.

The country is still very much in a post-conflict phase of humanitarian, relief and resettlement activities. It will need much technical and financial assistance to deal with challenges of reintegrating ex-combatants and addressing the serious economic and social tasks especially youth unemployment. For this reason more grants are still needed and government needs more fiscal space to be able to meet post-conflict challenges before it can move into the recovery and development phase after it has attained a pre-conflict level of GDP.