The Tragedy of Burundi

Thousands dead, hundreds of thousands fleeing – is it politics? 

Thousands of people killed in just the last year. Over a quarter of a million refugees fleeing to neighboring countries. The violent internal conflict in the Republic of Burundi in Central Africa is tragically nowhere near an end. The violence started in 2015 when President Nkurunziza was able to find a “loophole” in the constitution that enabled him to run for a third term despite the constitutional limit of two terms for all elected presidents in Burundi. Nkurunziza’s election to a third term in 2015 triggered the start of violent opposition that continues today with no end in sight. 

On May 2, 2016, the U.S. State Department through spokesman John Kirby called on the conflicting parties in Burundi to resume dialogue and to find a solution within the framework envisaged by the Arusha Accords of August, 2000. The State Department’s search for a political accommodation to this primarily ethnic-based conflict is unrealistic. 

Observers and analysts who attribute the dispute to Nkurunziza’s alleged usurping of the constitution to run for and win a third term are ignoring the ethnic element that has been the basis for violence since Burundi’s independence from Belgium in 1960. Indeed, most observers emphasize the multi-ethnic composition of those who are challenging Nkurunziza’s election to a third term as fraudulent. They say politics is the basis for today’s conflict.

I wish to register my strong opposition to the argument that politics dominate the current violent dispute. I argue that ethnicity is the dominant factor by far. In the context of Burundi’s history since its independence from Belgium in 1960, the ethnicity question obliterates every other factor. In addition, I believe that the Arusha Accords, that were designed to promote security through ethnic balance in both government and the armed forces, are actually a basis for continued suspicion and violence rather than peace and reconciliation. 

A History of Ethnic Diversity and Tension

Ethnic tensions and animosities, not politics, have dominated Burundian society from independence in 1962 to the present time. A return to stability, therefore, will require both recognition and commitment on the part of the Tutsi elite that they will never be able to return to minority rule.

The two ethnic groups in both Rwanda and Burundi are the Hutus and the Tutsis. The Hutus, an agricultural people, migrated to these “great lakes” countries, with rich volcanic soils, from other parts of central Africa during the 17th and 18th centuries. They represent 85% of the populations of both nations. The Tutsis, a pastoral people, migrated south from southern Ethiopia, with livestock at about the same time. They represent 15% of the population of both nations. In Burundi, the common language is Kirundi, and there is significant intermarriage between the two groups.

During the colonial period, the Germans (1885-1917) and the Belgians (1917-1962) favored the minority Tutsis for education, government administration, and commerce. There was a belief that the Tutsis were more advanced culturally. This policy became a self-fulfilling prophecy after Rwanda and Burundi were granted independence in 1960. In Rwanda, the majority Hutu won power through the ballot box in 1960, and immediately started to persecute the Tutsi population to avenge historic domination. In Burundi, the Tutsi minority managed to translate their dominance during the colonial period into post-independence power with the help of certain Belgian political allies. Thus, Burundi began as a new nation under tense minority rule. 

In 1971-1972, the Burundi majority Hutu population started to demand political reforms that would lead to democratic majority rule. This caused panic among the Tutsi rulers who instituted a policy of violent repression against the Hutu intellectual leadership. This took the form of a genocide aimed at all Hutus with more than a fifth grade education. During 1972, an estimated 100,000 Hutus were murdered in cold blood. 

Needless to say, the 1972 genocide caused tremendous trauma within the Hutu population of Burundi. In addition, several hundred thousand Hutus escaped the violence by becoming long-term refugees in neighboring Tanzania. 

In 1972, I was assigned to the State Department in Washington as Director for the Office of Central African affairs, with responsibility for US relations with Zaire (Congo), Rwanda, Burundi, and a number of other countries in that sub-region. When the genocide broke out, there was very little interest within the press and the political classes of the international community. The US Embassy in Bujumbura was sending us grim details on a daily basis. After desperately trying to find a way to stop the killing during the first month, the U.S. appealed to the President of Tanzania to make an effort. His method was to threaten Burundi with stopping all rail traffic between the Tanzanian port of Dar Es Salaam and Burundi. Facing a loss of revenue from their coffee exports, the Burundi authorities agreed to stop their action against educated Hutus. 

That same year, US congressional hearings about the Burundi genocide constituted the beginning of the US in-depth interest in human rights around the world. The annual US human rights report was instituted as a result of the Burundi genocide of 1972.

Between 1972 and 1993, Burundi was governed by a succession of Tutsi military officers who came to power through coups. The guiding principle for all of these military rulers was to maintain the Tutsis in power by whatever means necessary. One of these military dictators, Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, died recently during the first week of May, 2016. His time in power during the 1970s and 1980s was marked by harsh restrictions on the Catholic Church that naturally ministered to, and favored, the majority Hutu population. 

In 1987, Bagaza was overthrown by the army that installed Colonel Pierre Buyoya as head of state. Buyoya was the first Tutsi leader to understand that permanent minority rule, on the eve of the 21st. century, was unsustainable. He decided to take a chance on multiparty elections with no allowance for ethnicity. Having instituted reforms, and having included Hutus in his government, Buyoya felt that he had a good chance to be elected President despite his Tutsi ethnicity. Nevertheless, ethnicity prevailed, and the result of this first democratic election in 1993 was a victory for a Hutu dominated party called FRODEBU. The first Hutu President in Burundi history was Melchior Ndadaye. 

Within a few months of FRODEBU’s coming to power, in late 1993, Tutsi military officers invaded the presidency and murdered President Ndadaye and six of his ministers. A Tutsi military officer assumed the presidency, but he could not really govern because Hutu fighters went into the bush and started a major insurgency. This is the internal war that was ended by the Arusha accords of the year 2000. These accords brought peace, but it has been a tense peace. Multiparty elections have been held, but the first Hutu president after the killing of President Ndadaye in 1993, Pierre Nkurunziza, has constantly been looking over his shoulder at the return of the Tutsis to power, real or imagined. The fact that the opposition is made up of both Hutus and Tutsis should normally be reassuring, but in Nkurunziza’s mind, as well as in the minds of many Hutu intellectuals, the Tutsis remain a permanent threat who will not stop until they achieve a return of Tutsi hegemony. Events in neighboring Rwanda since the 1994 genocide there, have not been reassuring. On the contrary.

Learning from History

The current instability in Burundi stems directly from the disproportionate share of power given to the Tutsi minority by the Arusha accord and the constitution derived from that accord. With the memory of the 1972 genocide still quite strong, and the memory of the assassination of the first elected Hutu still fresh in the consciousness of the Hutu community, the almost equal status of the Tutsis in constitutional power must be quite frightening to the Hutus. The constitution gives the Tutsis fifty percent of the military, and up to forty percent of the members of parliament. This disproportionate share of power cannot fail to strike fear in the hearts of the Hutus. The fact that most of the young men who are currently attacking government officials are from the Tutsi community is also feeding the Hutu paranoia.

It seems to me that the Tutsis, who have been very successful in education and business in Burundi, need to seriously consider accepting permanent minority status, and that they will not share power except on an individual basis as the Hutus rule the country permanently. History tells us that political solutions based on power sharing cannot constitute a basis for stability in Burundi. The memories of anti-Hutu genocide and political murder are still too fresh. For several generations to come, the Tutsis need to demonstrate that they are committed to the idea that they will never rule Burundi as a minority, but will still be able to prosper as a very talented element in society.