The Forgotten Case of Burundi: Memories of Ethnic Unrest & Genocide Plague Rwanda’s Neighbour

Most people have heard of the Rwandan Genocide, a travesty that tore the small central African country apart in 1994. Few are aware of the comparable troubles suffered by Rwanda’s equally tiny neighbour, Burundi, however. With another important presidential election looming, it is worth recalling Burundi’s tragic recent past, which forever leaves the country balanced on the precipice of civil war.

There is little evidence of social distancing as campaigning enters its final few days

Burundi’s history and ethnic make-up is not too dissimilar to Rwanda’s. It has a majority Hutu population, with a sizable Tutsi minority, the latter for many years the dominant political and economic force in the country. A Tutsi monarchy had held sway over the region prior to the arrival of European colonial powers – in this instance the Germans and Belgians – who proceeded to exercise overlordship through the existing monarchy.

After achieving independence from Belgium in 1962, Burundi was ruled by a series of Tutsi-dominated military dictatorships. Opposition to the dictatorship resulted in a genocidal campaign by the ruling Tutsis in 1972 that may have resulted in more than 100,000 Hutu deaths, with thousands more fleeing into foreign countries.

Frequent coups and counter-coups plagued Burundi until it was agreed to hold the first multi-party elections in 1993. Of course, the ethnic sectarianism had far from subsided, with ongoing insurgencies persisting throughout the period of military rule and atrocities committed by both Tutsis and Hutus at a local level.

Melchior Ndadaye became Burundi’s first democratically-elected leader in the summer of 1993; he also happened to be from the majority Hutu group. Within just a few months of this seeming triumph, however, Ndadaye was assassinated during a coup launched by Tutsi officers. At this point, all hell broke loose.

An estimated 300,000 people were slaughtered in the ensuing bloodshed, mainly Tutsis and moderate Hutus in a sinister premonition of the Rwandan Genocide. That Ndadaye’s successor, Cyprien Ntaryamira, died in the same 1994 airplane crash that killed Rwanda’s President Juvenal Habyarimana and sparked the horrors there, further demonstrates the inextricable link between these two tragic periods of history.

Victims of ethnic bloodshed during the Burundian civil war

The 1993 genocide was only the start for Burundi, as the country became embroiled in a twelve year civil war pitting ethnic and tribal groups against one another, with a whole host of internally-divided rebel groups wreaking havoc across what was, and remains, one of Africa’s poorest states. Child soldiers were notoriously used by both sides as hundreds of thousands of people died, even more being left displaced or unable to support themselves.

It took until 2005 for the war to end, when the last of the rebel groups signed a ceasefire. By this point Pierre Nkurunziza, a Hutu, had been elected as president by parliament, with the political and military establishments both re-organised to reflect the multi-ethnic reality of the population.

A war hero who had purportedly suffered severe wounds in battle, Nkurunziza’s early period in office was laced with promise. Whilst ethnic strife was not eliminated overnight, a lengthy period of relative peace began, with a war-weary populace seemingly content to try and put the country back together. As is so often the case in Africa, though, the ‘freedom fighter hero’ was corrupted by the trappings of office, with Nkurunziza becoming increasingly dictatorial.

Pierre Nkurunziza’s autocracy has once more threatened Burundian stability

Re-elected in 2010 with 91% of the vote (the opposition boycotted as a result of his increasing despotism), Nkurunziza sought to change the constitution in 2015 to allow him to seek a third term in office. Such a brazen attempt to cling on to power brought people out into the streets in unprecedented numbers, with hundreds of thousands protesting in the capital Bujumbura alone.

The 2015 unrest sparked a refugee crisis that has put pressure on neighbouring states

Despite fears of ethnic violence – potentially deliberately exacerbated by Nkurunziza in his bid to quell the unrest – Burundians were mainly expressing their displeasure at progress under their nefarious ruler, with vast swathes of the population remaining impoverished. When Nkurunziza was out of the country at a conference in Tanzania, a military officer attempted yet another coup. Nkurunziza returned and the coup fizzled out, the president winning re-election after the approval of his constitutional change by Burundi’s highest court.

Whilst it has not bubbled over into civil war, the latest unrest in Burundi has persisted and threatened to turn bloody when Nkurunziza forced through yet another constitutional amendment in 2018 which would allow him to extend his rule until 2034. Only an international backlash prevented Nkurunziza from standing again in this week’s election; he seemingly doesn’t care about what the Burundian people think despite his supposed democratic mandate.

The 2015 unrest sparked fears of renewed civil conflict in Burundi. If the 2020 is poorly-handled, we can expect a similar outburst of rage

That Nkurunziza has adopted the epithet “eternal supreme guide” – not a giant leap from former Malawian dictator Hastings Banda’s “president for life” –  does not augur well for the country, with his hand-picked successor Evariste Ndayishimiye likely to be little more than a convenient puppet.

With reports of violent clashes between opposing sets of supporters already surfacing from in-country, there have to be serious concerns as to whether we are once more drawing closer to civil war in Burundi, which could quickly take on ethnic dimensions, and what the international community can do to alleviate this possibility. Fears are intensified by the fact that the cornoavirus pandemic has reached Burundi and that mass gatherings and any population displacement caused by further unrest may see its rapid spread through Burundian society and across adjacent national borders.

The African Union, with UN support, should be prepared to hurry into Burundi and prevent another round of bloodshed should the elections prove as controversial as anticipated. Without this contingency, the name Burundi may be elevated to the same depressing notoriety associated with its Rwandan neighbour.

Author: Stefan Lang

An interested observer of current affairs, researcher and writer

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