Burundi is one of the few countries in Africa, along with its neighbour Rwanda among others (such as Botswana, Lesotho, and Swaziland), to be a direct territorial continuation of a pre-colonial era African state. The early history of Burundi, and especially the role and nature of the country’s three dominant ethnic groups; the Twa, Hutu and Tutsi, is highly debated amongst academics. However, it is important to note that the nature of culture and ethnic groups is always fluid and changing. While the groups might have migrated to the area at different times and as distinctly different ethnic groups, the current distinctions are contemporary socio-cultural constructs. Initially the different ethnic groups lived together in relative peace. The first conflicts between ethnic groups can be dated back to the 17th century, when land was becoming ever more scarce because of the continuous growth in population.
Kingdom of Burundi
The first evidence of the Burundian state dates back to the late 16th century where it emerged on the eastern foothills. Over the following centuries it expanded, annexing smaller neighbours. The Kingdom of Burundi or Urundi in the Great Lakes region was a polity ruled by a traditional monarch with several princes beneath him, succession struggles were common. The king, known as the mwami (translated as ruler) headed a princely aristocracy (ganwa) which owned most of the land and required a tribute, or tax, from local farmers (mainly Hutu) and herders (mainly Tutsi). The Kingdom of Burundi was characterized by a hierarchical political authority and tributary economic exchange.
In the mid-18th century, the Tutsi royalty consolidated authority over land, production, and distribution with the development of the ubugabire—a patron-client relationship in which the populace received royal protection in exchange for tribute and land tenure. By this time, the royal court was made up of the Tutsi-Banyaruguru, they had higher social status than other pastoralists such as the Tutsi-Hima. In the lower levels of this society were generally Hutu people, and at the very bottom of the pyramid were the Twa. The system had some fluidity however, some Hutu people belonged to the nobility and in this way also had a say in the functioning of the state.
The classification of Hutu or Tutsi was not merely based on ethnic criteria alone. Hutu farmers that managed to acquire wealth and livestock were regularly granted the higher social status of Tutsi, some even made it to become close advisors of the Ganwa. On the other hand, there are also reports of Tutsi that lost all their cattle and subsequently lost their higher status and were called Hutu. Thus, the distinction between Hutu and Tutsi was also a socio-cultural concept, instead of a purely ethnic one. There were also many reports of marriages between Hutu and Tutsi people. In general, regional ties and tribal power struggles played a far more determining role in Burundi’s politics than ethnicity.
Burundi ceased to be a monarchy when king Ntare V Ndizeye was deposed by his Prime Minister and Chief of Staff, Capt. Michel Micombero, who abolished the monarchy and declared a republic following the November 1966 coup d’état.
From 1884, the German East Africa Company was active in the African Great Lakes region. As a result of heightened tensions and border disputes between the German East Africa Company, the British Empire and the Sultanate of Zanzibar, the German Empire was called upon to put down the Abushiri revolts and protect the empire’s interests in the region. The German East Africa Company transferred its rights to the German Empire in 1891, in this way establishing the German colony of German East Africa, which included Burundi, Rwanda, and the mainland part of Tanzania (formerly known as Tanganyika). The German Empire stationed armed forces in Ruanda and Burundi during the late 1880s. The location of the present-day city of Gitega served as an administrative centre for the Ruanda-Urundi region.
During the First World War, the East African Campaign greatly affected the African Great Lakes region. The allied powers, the British Empire and Belgium launched a coordinated attack on the German colony. The German army stationed in Burundi was forced to retreat by the numerical superiority of the Belgian army and by the 17th of June 1916, Burundi and Rwanda were occupied. The Force Publique and the British Lake Force then started a thrust to capture Tabora, an administrative centre of central German East Africa. After the war, as outlined in the Treaty of Versailles, Germany was forced to cede “control” of the Western section of the former German East Africa to Belgium.
On 20 October 1924, Ruanda-Urundi, which consisted of modern-day Rwanda and Burundi, became a Belgian League of Nations mandate territory, with Usumbura as its capital. In practical terms it was considered part of the Belgian colonial empire. Ruanda-Urundi continued its kingship dynasty despite the invasion of Europeans.
The Belgians, however, preserved many of the kingdom’s institutions, the Burundian monarchy succeeded in surviving into the post-colonial period. Following the Second World War, Ruanda-Urundi was classified as a United Nations Trust Territory under Belgian administrative authority. During the 1940s, a series of policies caused divisions throughout the country. On 4 October 1943, powers were split in the legislative division of Burundi’s government between chiefdoms and lower chiefdoms. Chiefdoms were in charge of land, and lower sub-chiefdoms were established. Native authorities also had powers. In 1948, Belgium allowed the region to form political parties. These factions contributed to Burundi gaining its independence from Belgium, on the 1st of July 1962.
On 20 January 1959, Burundi’s ruler Mwami Mwambutsa IV requested Burundi’s independence from Belgium and dissolution of the Ruanda-Urundi union. In the following months, Burundian political parties began to advocate for the end of Belgian colonial rule and the separation of Rwanda and Burundi. The first and largest of these political parties was the Union for National Progress (UPRONA).
Burundi’s push for independence was influenced by the Rwandan Revolution and the accompanying instability and ethnic conflict that occurred there. As a result of the Rwandan Revolution, many Rwandan Tutsi refugees arrived in Burundi during the period from 1959 to 1961.
Burundi’s first elections took place on 8 September 1961 and UPRONA, a multi-ethnic unity party led by Prince Louis Rwagasore won just over 80% of the electorate’s votes. In the wake of the elections, on 13 October, the 29-year-old Prince Rwagasore was assassinated, robbing Burundi of its most popular and well-known nationalist.
The country claimed independence on 1 July 1962, and legally changed its name from Ruanda-Urundi to Burundi. Burundi became a constitutional monarchy with Mwami Mwambutsa IV, Prince Rwagasore’s father, serving as the country’s king. On 18 September 1962 Burundi joined the United Nations.
In 1963, King Mwambutsa appointed a Hutu prime minister, Pierre Ngendandumwe, but he was assassinated on 15 January 1965 by a Rwandan Tutsi employed by the US Embassy. The assassination occurred in the broader context of the Congo Crisis during which Western anti-communist countries were confronting the communist People’s Republic of China as it attempted to make Burundi a logistics base for communist insurgents battling in Congo. Parliamentary elections in May 1965 brought a majority of Hutu into the parliament, but when King Mwambutsa appointed a Tutsi prime minister, some Hutu felt this was unjust and ethnic tensions were further increased. In October 1965, an attempted coup d’état led by the Hutu-dominated police was carried out but failed. The Tutsi dominated army, then led by Tutsi officer Captain Michel Micombero purged Hutu from their ranks and carried out reprisal attacks which ultimately claimed the lives of up to 5,000 people in a predecessor to the 1972 Burundian Genocide.
King Mwambutsa, who had fled the country during the October coup of 1965, was deposed by a coup in July 1966 and his teenage son, Prince Ntare V, claimed the throne. In November that same year, the Tutsi Prime Minister, then-Captain Michel Micombero, carried out another coup, this time deposing Ntare, abolishing the monarchy and declaring the nation a republic, though his one-party government was effectively a military dictatorship. As president, Micombero became an advocate of African socialism and received support from the People’s Republic of China. He imposed a staunch regime of law and order and sharply repressed Hutu militarism.
Civil war and genocide against Hutu
In late April 1972, two events led to the outbreak of the First Burundian Genocide. On 27 April 1972, a rebellion led by Hutu members of the gendarmerie broke out in the lakeside towns of Rumonge and Nyanza-Lac and the rebels declared the short-lived Martyazo Republic. The rebels attacked both Tutsi and any Hutu who refused to join their rebellion. During this initial Hutu outbreak, anywhere from 800 to 1200 people were killed. At the same time, King Ntare V of Burundi returned from exile, heightening political tension in the country. On 29 April 1972, the 24-year-old Ntare V was murdered. In subsequent months, the Tutsi-dominated government of Micombero used the army to combat Hutu rebels and commit genocide, murdering targeted members of the Hutu majority. The total number of casualties was never established, but contemporary estimates put the number of people killed between 80,000 and 210,000. In addition, several hundred thousand Hutu were estimated to have fled the killings into Zaïre, Rwanda and Tanzania.
Following the civil war and genocide, Micombero became mentally distraught and withdrawn. In 1976, Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, a Tutsi, led a bloodless coup to toppled Micombero and set about promoting reform. His administration drafted a new constitution in 1981, which maintained Burundi’s status as a one-party state. In August 1984, Bagaza was elected head of state. During his tenure, Bagaza suppressed political opponents and religious freedoms.
Major Pierre Buyoya (Tutsi) overthrew Bagaza in 1987, suspended the constitution and dissolved political parties. He reinstated military rule by a Military Committee for National Salvation (CSMN). Anti-Tutsi ethnic propaganda disseminated by the remnants of the 1972 UBU, which had re-organized as PALIPEHUTU in 1981, led to killings of Tutsi peasants in the northern communes of Ntega and Marangara in August 1988. The government put the death toll at 5,000; some international NGOs believed this understated the deaths.
The new regime did not unleash the harsh reprisals of 1972. Its effort to gain public trust was eroded when it decreed an amnesty for those who had called for, carried out, and taken credit for the killings. Analysts have called this period the beginning of the “culture of impunity.” Other analysts put the origins of the “culture of impunity” earlier, in 1965 and 1972, when a small number of identifiable Hutus unleashed massive killings of Tutsis.
In the aftermath of the killings, a group of Hutu intellectuals wrote an open letter to Pierre Buyoya, asking for more representation of the Hutu in the administration. They were arrested and jailed. A few weeks later, Buyoya appointed a new government, with an equal number of Hutu and Tutsi ministers. He appointed Adrien Sibomana (Hutu) as Prime Minister. Buyoya also created a commission to address issues of national unity. In 1992, the government created a new constitution that provided for a multi-party system, but a civil war broke out.
An estimated total of 250,000 people died in Burundi from the various conflicts between 1962 and 1993. Since Burundi’s 1962 independence in 1962, two genocides have taken placein the country: the 1972 mass killings of Hutus by the Tutsi-dominated army, and the mass killings of Tutsis in 1993 by the Hutu majority. Both were described as genocides in the final report of the International Commission of Inquiry for Burundi presented in 2002 to the United Nations Security Council.
First attempt at democracy and genocide against Tutsi
In June 1993, Melchior Ndadaye, leader of the Hutu-dominated Front for Democracy in Burundi (FRODEBU), won the first democratic election. He became the first Hutu head of state, leading a pro-Hutu government. In October 1993, Tutsi soldiers assassinated Ndadaye, an act which resulted in a genocide against Tutsi, which led to years of violence between Hutu rebels and Tutsi majority army. It is estimated that some 300,000 people, mostly civilians, were killed in the years following the assassination.
In early 1994, the parliament elected Cyprien Ntaryamira (Hutu) to the office of president. He and Juvénal Habyarimana, the president of Rwanda, died together when their aeroplane was shot down in April 1994. More refugees started fleeing to Rwanda. Speaker of Parliament, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya (Hutu), was appointed as president in October 1994. A coalition government involving 12 of the 13 parties was formed. A feared general massacre was averted, but violence broke out. A number of Hutu refugees in the capital, Bujumbura, were killed. The mainly Tutsi Union for National Progress withdrew from the government and parliament.
In 1996, Pierre Buyoya (Tutsi) again took power through a coup d’état. He suspended the constitution and was sworn in as president in 1998, this was the start of his second term as president, after his first term from 1987 to 1993. In response to rebel attacks, the government forced much of the population to move to refugee camps. Under Buyoya’s rule, long peace talks started, mediated by South Africa. Both parties signed agreements in Arusha, Tanzania and Pretoria, South Africa, to share power in Burundi. The agreements took four years to plan.
On 28 August 2000, a transitional government for Burundi was planned as a part of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement. The transitional government was placed on a trial basis for five years. After several aborted cease-fires, a 2001 peace plan and power-sharing agreement has been relatively successful. A cease-fire was signed in 2003 between the Tutsi-controlled Burundian government and the largest Hutu rebel group, CNDD-FDD (National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy).
In 2003, FRODEBU leader Domitien Ndayizeye (Hutu) was elected president. In early 2005, ethnic quotas were formed for determining positions in Burundi’s government. Throughout the year, elections for parliament and president occurred.
Pierre Nkurunziza (Hutu), once a leader of a rebel group, was elected president in 2005. As of 2008, the Burundian government was talking with the Hutu-led Palipehutu-National Liberation Forces (NLF) to bring peace to the country.
African leaders began a series of peace talks between the warring factions following a request by the United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali for them to intervene in the humanitarian crisis. Talks were initiated under the aegis of former Tanzanian President Julius Nyerere in 1995; following his death, South African President Nelson Mandela took the helm. As the talks progressed, South African President Thabo Mbeki and United States President Bill Clinton also lent their respective weight.
The peace talks took the form of Track I mediations. This method of negotiation can be defined as a form of diplomacy involving governmental or intergovernmental representatives, who may use their positive reputations, mediation or the “carrot and stick” method as a means of obtaining or forcing an outcome, frequently along the lines of “bargaining” or “win-lose”.
The main objective was to transform the Burundian government and military structurally in order to bridge the ethnic gap between the Tutsi and Hutu. It was to take place in two major steps. First, a transitional power-sharing government would be established, with the presidents holding office for three-year terms. The second objective involved a restructuring of the armed forces, where the two groups would be represented equally.
As the protracted nature of the peace talks demonstrated, the mediators and negotiating parties confronted several obstacles. First, the Burundian officials perceived the goals as “unrealistic” and viewed the treaty as ambiguous, contradictory and confusing. Second, and perhaps most importantly, the Burundians believed the treaty would be irrelevant without an accompanying cease fire. This would require separate and direct talks with the rebel groups. The main Hutu party was sceptical of the offer of a power-sharing government; they alleged that they had been deceived by the Tutsi in past agreements.
In 2000, the Burundian President signed the treaty, as well as 13 of the 19 warring Hutu and Tutsi factions. Disagreements persisted over which group would preside over the nascent government and when the ceasefire would begin. The spoilers of the peace talks were the hardliner Tutsi and Hutu groups who refused to sign the accord; as a result, violence intensified. Three years later at a summit of African leaders in Tanzania, the Burundian president and the main opposition Hutu group signed an accord to end the conflict; the signatory members were granted ministerial posts within the government. However, smaller militant Hutu groups – such as the Forces for National Liberation – remained active.
Between 1993 and 2003, many rounds of peace talks, overseen by regional leaders in Tanzania, South Africa and Uganda, gradually established power-sharing agreements to satisfy the majority of the contending groups. Initially the South African Protection Support Detachment was deployed to protect Burundian leaders returning from exile. These forces became part of the African Union Mission to Burundi, deployed to help oversee the installation of a transitional government. In June 2004, the UN stepped in and took over peacekeeping responsibilities as a signal of growing international support for the already markedly advanced peace process in Burundi.
The mission’s mandate, under Chapter VII of the United Nations Charter, has been to monitor cease-fire; carry out disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former combatants; support humanitarian assistance and refugee and IDP return; assist with elections; protect international staff and Burundian civilians; monitor Burundi’s troublesome borders, including halting illicit arms flows; and assist in carrying out institutional reforms including those of the Constitution, judiciary, armed forces and police. The mission has been allotted 5,650 military personnel, 120 civilian police and about 1,000 international and local civilian personnel. The mission has been functioning well. It has greatly benefited from the transitional government, which has functioned and is in the process of transitioning to one that will be popularly elected.
The main difficulty in the early stages was continued resistance to the peace process by the last Hutu nationalist rebel group. This organisation continued its violent conflict on the outskirts of the capital despite the UN’s presence. By June 2005, the group had stopped fighting and its representatives were brought back into the political process. All political parties have accepted a formula for inter-ethnic power-sharing: no political party can gain access to government offices unless it is ethnically integrated.
The focus of the UN’s mission had been to enshrine the power-sharing arrangements in a popularly voted constitution, so that elections may be held and a new government installed. Disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration were done in tandem with elections preparations. In February 2005, the Constitution was approved with over 90% of the popular vote. In May, June and August 2005, three separate elections were also held at the local level for the Parliament and the presidency.
While there are still some difficulties with refugee returns and securing adequate food supplies for the war-weary population, the mission managed to win the trust and confidence of a majority of the formerly warring leaders, as well as the population at large. It was involved with several “quick effect” projects, including rehabilitating and building schools, orphanages, health clinics and rebuilding infrastructure such as water lines.
2006 to 2015
Reconstruction efforts in Burundi started to practically take effect after 2006. The UN shut down its peacekeeping mission and re-focused on helping with reconstruction. Toward achieving economic reconstruction, Rwanda, DR Congo and Burundi relaunched the regional Economic Community of the Great Lakes Countries. In addition, Burundi, along with Rwanda, joined the East African Community in 2007.
However, the terms of the September 2006 Ceasefire between the government and the last remaining armed opposition group, the FLN (Forces for National Liberation, also called NLF or FROLINA), were not totally implemented, and senior FLN members subsequently left the truce monitoring team, claiming that their security was threatened. In September 2007, rival FLN factions clashed in the capital, killing 20 fighters and causing residents to begin fleeing. Rebel raids were reported in other parts of the country. The rebel factions disagreed with the government over disarmament and the release of political prisoners. In late 2007 and early 2008, FLN combatants attacked government-protected camps where former combatants were living. The homes of rural residents were also pillaged.
The 2007 report of Amnesty International mentions many areas where improvement is required. Civilians are victims of repeated acts of violence done by the FLN. The latter also recruits child soldiers. The rate of violence against women is high. Perpetrators regularly escape prosecution and punishment by the state. There is an urgent need for reform of the judicial system. Genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity remain unpunished. The establishment of a Truth and Reconciliation Commission and a Special Tribunal for investigation and prosecution has not yet been implemented. The freedom of expression is limited; journalists are frequently arrested for carrying out legitimate professional activities. A total of 38,087 Burundian refugees have been repatriated between January and November 2007.
In late March 2008, the FLN sought for the parliament to adopt a law guaranteeing them ‘provisional immunity’ from arrest. This would cover ordinary crimes, but not grave violations of international humanitarian law like war crimes or crimes against humanity. Even though the government has granted this in the past to people, the FLN has been unable to obtain the provisional immunity.
On 17 April 2008, the FLN bombarded Bujumbura. The Burundian army fought back and the FLN suffered heavy losses. A new ceasefire was signed on 26 May 2008. In August 2008, President Nkurunziza met with the FLN leader Agathon Rwasa, with the mediation of Charles Nqakula, South Africa’s Minister for Safety and Security. This was the first direct meeting since June 2007. Both agreed to meet twice a week to establish a commission to resolve any disputes that might arise during the peace negotiations.
Refugee camps are now closing down and 450,000 refugees have returned. The economy of the country is shattered – as of 2011 Burundi has one of the lowest per capita gross incomes in the world. With the return of refugees, amongst others, property conflicts have started.
Burundi now participates in African Union peacekeeping missions, including the mission to Somalia against Al-Shabaab militants.
Burundian unrest (2015–present)
In April 2015 protests broke out after the ruling party announced President Pierre Nkurunziza would seek a third term in office. Protestors claimed Nkurunziza could not run for a third term in office but the country’s constitutional court agreed with the President (although some of its members had fled the country at the time of its vote).
An attempted coup d’état on 13 May failed to depose Nkurunziza. He returned to Burundi, began purging his government, and arrested several of the coup leaders. Following the attempted coup, protests however continued and over 100,000 people had fled the country by 20 May causing a humanitarian emergency. There are reports of continued and widespread abuses of human rights, including unlawful killings, torture, disappearances, and restrictions on freedom of expression.
Despite calls by the United Nations, the African Union, the United States, France, South Africa, Belgium, and various other governments, the ruling party held parliamentary elections on 29 June, but these were boycotted by the opposition.
The Commission of Inquiry
On 30 September 2016, the United Nations Human Rights Council established the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi through resolution 33/24. Its mandate is to “conduct a thorough investigation into human rights violations and abuses committed in Burundi since April 2015, to identify alleged perpetrators and to formulate recommendations.” The Human Rights Council extended the mandate of the Commission for another year in September 2017. On 29 September 2017 the Commission of Inquiry on Burundi called on Burundian government to put an end to serious human rights violations. It further stressed that, “The Burundian government has so far refused to cooperate with the Commission of Inquiry, despite the Commission’s repeated requests and initiatives.” The Commission conducted interviews with more than 500 Burundian refugees abroad and others who remained in their country and reached the conclusion that “serious human rights violations and abuses have been committed in Burundi since April 2015. The violations the Commission documented include arbitrary arrests and detentions, acts of torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, rape and other forms of sexual violence.”