History of Burundi

Burundi is one of the few countries in Africa, along with its closely linked neighbour Rwanda among others, to be a direct territorial continuation of an ancient African state.

Kingdom of Burundi

Origins of Burundi are known from a mix of oral history and archaeology. There are two main founding legends for Burundi. The one most promoted today tells a tale of a Rwandan named Cambarantama founding the nation. The other version, more common in pre-colonial Burundi, says that Cambarantama came from the southern state of Buha. The notion of Rwandan origins for the kingdom was promoted by the European colonizers for it fit their ideals of a ruling class coming to the area from the Hamitic northeast. The theory has continued to be the semi-official dogma of the modern Burundian state. Historians doubt the Hamitic origins of the Tutsis, but it is still believed that their ancestors migrated from the north to what is now Burundi in the 15th century. The first evidence of the Burundian state is from 16th century where it emerged on the eastern foothills. Over the next centuries it expanded, annexing smaller neighbours and competing with Rwanda. Its greatest growth occurred under Ntare Rugamba, who ruled the nation from about 1796 to 1850 and saw the kingdom double in size.

The Kingdom of Burundi was characterized by a hierarchical political authority and tributary economic exchange. The king, known as the mwami headed a princely aristocracy (ganwa) which owned most of the land and required a tribute, or tax, from local farmers and herders. In the mid-18th century, this 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.

Although European explorers and missionaries made brief visits to the area as early as 1856, it was not until 1899 that Burundi became a part of German East Africa. Unlike the Rwandan monarchy which decided to accept the German advances, the Burundian king Mwezi Gisabo opposed all European influence, refusing to wear European clothing and resisting the advance of European missionaries or administrators. The Germans used armed force and succeeded in doing great damage, but did not destroy the king’s power. Eventually they backed one of the king's sons-in-law Maconco in a revolt against Gisabo. Gisabo was eventually forced to concede and agreed to German suzerainty. The Germans then helped him suppress Maconco's revolt. The smaller kingdoms along the western shore of Lake Victoria were also attached to Burundi.

Colonial rule

Even after this the foreign presence was minimal and the kings continued to rule much as before. The Europeans did, however, bring devastating diseases affecting both people and animals. Affecting the entire region, Burundi was especially hard hit. A great famine hit in 1905, with others striking the entire Great Lakes region in 1914, 1923, and 1944. Between 1905 and 1914 half the population of the western plains region died.

In 1916 Belgian troops conquered the area during the First World War. In 1923, the League of Nations mandated to Belgium the territory of Ruanda-Urundi, encompassing modern-day Rwanda and Burundi, but stripping the western kingdoms and giving them to British administered Tanganyika. The Belgians administered the territory through indirect rule, building on the Tutsi-dominated aristocratic hierarchy.

Following World War II, Ruanda-Urundi became a United Nations Trust Territory under Belgian administrative authority. After 1948, Belgium permitted the emergence of competing political parties. Two political parties emerged: the Union for National Progress (UPRONA), a multi-ethnic party led by Tutsi(*) Prince Louis Rwagasore and the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) supported by Belgium. In 1961, Prince Rwagasore was assassinated following an UPRONA victory in legislative elections.

(* Burundi Royalty come from the BAHANZA clan)


Full independence was achieved on July 1, 1962. In the context of weak democratic institutions at independence, Tutsi (*) King Mwambutsa IV established a constitutional monarchy comprising equal numbers of Hutus and Tutsis. The 1965 assassination of the Hutu prime minister set in motion a series of destabilizing Hutu revolts and subsequent governmental repression. These were in part in reaction to events in Rwanda where Tutsis were being killed by a Hutu nationalist regime. In Burundi the Tutsi became committed to ensuring they would not meet the same fate and much of the country's military and police forces became controlled by Tutsis. Unlike Rwanda, which allied itself with the United States in the Cold War, Burundi after independence became affiliated with China.

In 1966, King Mwambutsa IV was deposed by his son, Prince Ntare V, who himself was deposed by his prime minister Capt. Michel Micombero in the same year. He abolished the monarchy and declared a republic. A de facto military regime emerged and civil unrest continued throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s.

In late April 1972, a Hutu attack on a hill locality, situated in the south of the country, where most military officers were born, triggered a military reprisal. Such a repression by the army and the militia of the Uprona political party, whose members were ethnically related to the army, was systematic and more efficient in terms of inflicting humiliating defeat and human destruction. Lists were compiled of men, women and schoolchildren suspected of being potential threats, sympathisers themselves of rebels and those who had taken part in rebellion. Those named were sought out of schools, homes and killed by soldiers. About 200,000 Hutus are believed to have perished within a period of three months all over the country. The number of asylum seekers (mainly of Hutu stock) rose to more than 150,000 (over 15% of the total population of that time) by the end of six months. In an effort to attract sympathy from the United States, the Tutsi-dominated government accused the Hutu rebels of having Communist leanings, although there is no credible evidence that this was actually the case.

In 1976, Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bagaza took power in a bloodless coup. Although Bagaza led a Tutsi-dominated military regime, he encouraged land reform, electoral reform, and national reconciliation. In 1981, a new constitution was promulgated. In 1984, Bagaza was elected head of state, as the sole candidate. After his election, Bagaza's human rights record deteriorated as he suppressed religious activities and detained political opposition members.

In 1987, Major Pierre Buyoya overthrew Col. Bagaza. He dissolved opposition parties, suspended the 1981 constitution, and instituted his ruling Military Committee for National Salvation (CSMN). During 1988, increasing tensions between the ruling Tutsis and the majority Hutus resulted in violent confrontations between the army, the Hutu opposition, and Tutsi hardliners. During this period, an estimated 150,000 people were killed, with tens of thousands of refugees flowing to neighboring countries. Buyoya formed a commission to investigate the causes of the 1988 unrest and to develop a charter for democratic reform.

In 1991, Buyoya approved a constitution that provided for a president, nonethnic government, and a parliament. Burundi's first Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, of the Hutu-dominated Front for Democracy in Burundi (FRODEBU) Party, was elected in 1993. He was assassinated by factions of the Tutsi-dominated armed forces in October 1993. The country then plunged into civil war, which killed tens of thousands of people and displaced hundreds of thousands by the time the FRODEBU government regained control and elected Cyprien Ntaryamira president in January 1994. Nonetheless, the security situation continued to deteriorate.

In April 1994, President Ntaryamira and Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana died in a plane crash. This act marked the beginning of the Rwandan genocide, while in Burundi, the death of Ntaryamira exacerbated the violence and unrest, although there was no general massacre. Sylvestre Ntibantunganya was installed to a 4-year presidency on April 8, but the security situation further declined. The influx of hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees and the activities of armed Hutu and Tutsi groups further destabilized the regime.

On July 25, 1996, the government was overthrown in a coup led by Buyoya. The civil war continued, despite the efforts of the international community to create a peace process. Progress has been made since 2001, when a power-sharing government was created, and in 2003, Domitien Ndayizeye, the Hutu vice-president, became president as mandated by the power-sharing agreement.

A series of elections, held in mid-2005 were won by the former Hutu rebel National Council for the Defense of Democracy-Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD).

(* Burundi Kingdom come from the Bahanza clan)

Genocide and mass killings

A tentative attempt of genocide against the Tutsi prepared by Hutu extremists but caught by the government in the late 1960s led to a well prepared genocide against the Hutu, mostly the intellectuals, in Burundi in 1972 and an estimated 100,000 Hutu and moderate Tutsi died. Those who participated in that genocide are free after the current government of Burundi continues to urge all the people to forgive each other for all of the killings. In 1993, Burundi's first democratically elected Hutu president, Melchior Ndadaye, was assassinated by Tutsi extremists. His assassination was followed by a long civil war that killed both Hutu and Tutsi. A 1996 UN report into Ndadaye's assassination and its aftermath, concluded that "acts of genocide against the Tutsi minority were committed in Burundi in October 1993". The report also implicated senior figures in Burundi's Tutsi-dominated army in the assassination. In Burundi, both Hutu and Tutsi civilians have been targets of mass killings and acts of genocide organized by the state and by armed militia groups. The current government is made up of both Hutu and Tutsi. The Military is made up of both former Hutu rebels and former Tutsi government soldiers. The restoration of a multi-ethnic, multi-party democracy has seen renewed expectations of an end to Burundi's conflict. With a population of 7.8 million and GNP per capita of $90, Burundi is considered the poorest country in the world. The landlocked country is bordered by Rwanda, Tanzania, and the Democratic Republic of Congo. Formerly known as Urundi, the country gained its independence in 1962 after being run by Germany and then Belgium since 1884. Burundi has been desecrated by bloody battles, civil unrest, and mass murdering since it gained independence. The Hutus constitute 85 percent of the population, but have historically been dominated by the minority Tutsis. Despite the assassinations of nine leaders and the massacre in 1972, fighting remained minimal in the country for the next 20 years until the first democratically elected president, a Hutu named Melchior Ndadaye, was killed by Tutsi paratroopers in 1993.

As a result of the murder, violence broke out between the two groups, and an estimated 50,000 to 100,000 people died within a year. In 1994, Ndadaye’s successor was killed in the same plane crash with Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana. After the assassination, the Hutu presidency and Tutsi military operated under a power-sharing political system until 1996, when Tutsi Major Buyoya replaced the Hutu president in a coup. In 1998, Buyoya and the opposition-led Hutu parliament reached an agreement to sign a transitional constitution, and Buyoya was sworn in as president.

Fighting still remained between Tutsi and Hutu groups, and ceasefire talks, named the Arusha Accords, were held in Tanzania in 2000, facilitated by Nelson Mandela. The Accords established a transitional government, where the presidency and vice-presidency would be rotated every 18 months, sharing power between the Hutus and Tutsis. While the government and three Tutsi groups signed the ceasefire accord, two leading Hutu rebel groups refused to participate, and the fighting continued.

The transitional government was implemented in October 2001. Main Hutu rebel groups had still refused to sign a ceasefire agreement at this time, and 500 rebels were killed in their own attack against the Tutsi army on December 25, 2001. This resulted in increased fighting for several months. In July 2003, Domitien Ndayizeye, a Hutu, took over as president of the transitional government, and Buyoya stepped down. Along with the main Hutu rebel group, Forces for Defense of Democracy (FDD), President Ndayizeye signed a ceasefire agreement at a summit of African leaders in Tanzania in November 2003. Under the agreement, the FDD became a political party, and it was decided that rebel Hutu fights were to be integrated into the predominately-Tutsi armed forces. Disaster occurred in 2004 when the Hutu rebel group, Forces of National Liberation (FNL), claimed responsibility for killing 160 Congolese Tutsi refugees in a United Nations camp near the Congo border in Burundi. The attack was strongly condemned by the U.N. Security Council, which issued a statement of outrage at the fact that “most of the victims were women, children and babies who were shot dead and burned in their shelters.” citation The Council called on the top U.N. envoy in Burundi to investigate the incident with a U.N. representative from Congo, a step that increased U.N. intervention in the Burundi civil war. A few months later in December, U.N. and government forces began to disarm thousands of Burundi soldiers and former rebels. In 2005, many developments were made in the peace process. The president signed a law in January 2005 to initiate a new national army, consisting of Tutsi military forces and all but one Hutu rebel groups. The Constitution was approved by voters in a referendum—marking the first time for Burundians to vote since 1994. They voted again in the July during the legislative elections, in which “the Government of Burundi and the Independent National Electoral Commission conducted a technically-sound election, carried out in an atmosphere of peace and security.” The FDD ended up being the winning party for the parliamentary elections. Several months later, Pierre Nkurunziza, from the Hutu FDD group, was elected as president by the two Hutu-dominated houses of parliament.

After 12 years of living with a midnight-to-dawn curfew, Burundians were free to stay out late when the curfew was lifted in April 2006 for the first time since 1993. This signified the most stable point in Burundi civil affairs since the assassination of Hutu President Ndadaye and the beginning of the civil war.

Matters continued to look prosperous after Burundi’s last rebel group, the Force for National Liberation (FNL) signed a ceasefire deal in Tanzania, “solidifying the end of a 12-year civil war.” citation As part of the agreement, members of the FNL were to be assembled, demobilized, and integrated into the national army.

Former President Ndayizeye and his political supporters were arrested in 2006 and accused of plotting a coup, but later he was acquitted by the Supreme Court. International human rights groups claimed that the current government was framing Ndayizeye by torturing him into false confessions of the coup plot. Along with these accusations, in December 2006 the International Crisis Group labeled Burundi’s government with a “deteriorating” status in its treatment of human rights. The organization reported that the government had arrested critics, muzzled the press, committed human rights abuses, and tightened its control over the economy, and that “unless it [reversed] this authoritarian course, it risk[ed] triggering violent unrest and losing the gains of peace process.” citation

In February 2007, the U.N. officially shut down its peacekeeping operations in Burundi and turned its attention to rebuilding the nation’s economy, which relies heavily on tea and coffee but suffered severely during 12 years of civil war. The U.N. had deployed 5,600 peacekeepers since 2004, and several hundred troops remained to work with the African Union in monitoring the ceasefire. The U.N. donated $35 million to Burundi to work on infrastructure, promote democratic practices, rebuild the military, and defend human rights.

SOS Children, an NGO, claims success in the use of ARVs and condoms to combat AIDS when sample testing showed that the amount of those whom were HIV positive were 20 percent. The death toll due to the syndrome has still been devastating with the UN estimating 25,000 deaths in 2001 and Oxfam estimating 45,000 dead in 2003.

See also


  • Jean-Pierre Chrétien. The Great Lakes of Africa: Two Thousand Years of History trans Scott Straus

External links

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