Religious Stability Threatened in Burundi: an end to an historic anomaly?

An increasingly influential Catholic sect has had six of its members killed in a shoot-out with police in the north of Burundi, the impoverished East African country. Led by Zebiya Ngendakumana, who claims to have visitations from the Virgin Mary on the twelfth day of every month, the sect opposes traditional Catholic practices and has encouraged followers to disobey the government’s community service programme.

Zebiya Ngendakumana is attracting support in her native Kayanza region
Zebiya Ngendakumana is attracting support in her native Kayanza region

Burundi is a surprisingly homogenous society when it comes to religion. 75% of its people are Christian (60% of them Catholic) with small Muslim and Animist minorities. Furthermore, freedom of religion is guaranteed by the Burundian constitution, there is no official state religion and, until recently, there has been little religious conflict or dissent within the country.

This is unusual for an African state, particularly one not exposed to European missionaries until the late 19th century. Falling under German rule, Burundi experienced a succession of Protestant and Catholic missions after 1897 and this increased when the Belgians took control following World War One. Whereas in many other sub-Saharan African countries traditional beliefs and religious practices have remained embedded as a dominant force in the local culture, the Burundians have adopted and maintained a strong commitment to organised Christianity. That is not to say that traditional beliefs have been eradicated but that they are subordinated to, or commensurate with, Christian practice as stipulated by the Church.

Catholic missionaries were quick to mobilise in early 20th century Burundi
Catholic missionaries were quick to mobilise in early 20th century Burundi

Compare this relative religious harmony to the ethnic divisions that have ravaged Burundi since its independence in 1962 and you could not get a starker contrast. As with neighbouring Rwanda, Burundi has a majority Hutu population (about 85%). As with neighboruing Rwanda, there is a sizable Tutsi minority (about 14%) deemed to hold a disproportionate amount of the country’s political and military power.

Rwanda has had one genocide; Burundi two. Neither one was on the same scale as the Rwandan horror of 1994. Yet the 1972 Tutsi killings of Hutus and the 1993 murders of Tutsis by Hutus have left a bloody scar on the country. This has been compounded by the Burundian Civil War (1993-2005) during which weak governments tried and failed to repel a succession of militant groups, both Hutu and Tutsi, including those spilling over from the Rwandan war zone. Burundi has also been dragged into the ongoing conflict in DR Congo in recent years.

Ethnic hostility found further outlet during the civil war
Ethnic hostility found further outlet during the civil war

For a nation as economically weak as Burundi, continual warfare and social division has led to an impoverished populace. Nevertheless, recent years have offered hope. Since the end of the civil war ethnic conflict has reduced in intensity and, with a shared religion offering a common ground of understanding, the future for Burundi is not as bleak as some its neighbours. It would be a great shame if a dissident Catholic sect were to ruin this precarious progress.

The Burundian government and its security forces have a difficult balancing act to manage. They must retain the country’s proud record of religious freedom by permitting Ms Ngendakumana’s sect to preach in peace. Nevertheless, should the sect break the national peace through promoting civil disobedience and religious inequality then it must by necessity be countered. The difficulty is doing this in such a way that people do not get hurt, thus avoiding the popularisation of a dangerous cause that could upset the country’s religious homogeneity.

At a time when bitter religious conflicts are threatening to tear some countries in Africa apart (see Nigeria and Kenya for instance) Burundi, despite its size and economic weakness, can still remain a positive example for the region.


Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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