History of Burundi
Alternating Patterns of Violence
Upon independence, Burundi’s predominant divisions lay along political and ethnic fault lines between the majority Hutu and minority Tutsi ethnic groups. The desire for political and economic power fuelled these divisions, a dynamic which was further complicated by the clan and regional splits within each group. The first of many waves of violence began in 1965.
The year marked the start of a series of coups and attempted coups d’états, and resulted in the massacre of large numbers of the Tutsi population. By 1972 a pattern of Hutu uprisings and subsequent repression by the Tutsi-dominated army had developed. The organised repression of educated Hutu by the army in 1972 is widely regarded as the first case of genocide in the Great Lakes Region.
In the aftermath of the 1972 violence, an elite Tutsi clique consolidated their grip on power. The UPRONA political party, though originally the multi-ethnic party of the hero of Burundi’s independence, Prince Louis Rwagasore, became the symbol of Tutsi hegemony and military rule in Burundi. A one-party state was maintained for two decades in spite of numerous coups originating within the army. Violence continued throughout this period, notably the 1988 massacres that led to the deaths of thousands of Hutu and to many more fleeing the country.
By the beginning of the 1990s a series of reforms were instituted in the face of growing international concern. These reforms led to the first multiparty elections in 1993 that saw the election of the first Hutu President, Melchior Ndadaye of the FRODEBU party. In spite of growing optimism in the country, Burundi was plunged into full-scale civil war just three months into Ndadaye’s tenure after his assassination in a failed coup attempt. Violence perpetrated against Tutsi civilians in the immediate aftermath of his assassination has been referred to as genocide by a UN commission of inquiry. The widespread violence that followed, known locally as la crise, began as a conflict between Hutu rebels and the Tutsi-dominated security forces, but soon descended into chaos.
After seven years of violence the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement was signed in 2000. The Agreement established a transitional government, mandating an innovative power-sharing arrangement between the Hutu and Tutsi that included specific provisions for ethnic quotas in key institutions and the military. Significantly, the country’s two major rebel movements – the CNDD-FDD and the FNL – refused to sign the deal, with the former now accused of never having fully subscribed to the spirit of the Agreement.
Subsequent deals brokered with the CNDD-FDD in 2003 saw it transform from rebel movement to political party in time for democratic elections in 2005, which led to Pierre Nkurunziza being appointed to the presidency as leader of the CNDD-FDD. The remaining rebel movement, the FNL, signed a ceasefire deal in 2006 and officially disarmed in 2009. Estimates of the number of persons killed during the civil war put the figure in the hundreds of thousands.
Pierre Nkurunziza and his party consolidated their power after elections in 2010 that were marred by political violence and the decision of the majority of the opposition to pull out of the presidential elections. As a result, the current political landscape remains dominated by the CNDD-FDD. This dominance was yet further solidified by the re-election of Nkurunziza in 2015. The announcement sparked widespread protests that plunged Burundi into yet another political crisis that once again played host to a failed coup and human rights abuses. The 2015 crisis piqued the interest of regional and international institutions, but to date the numerous efforts employed to find a peaceful solution have largely failed to have any notable impact.
The latest outbreak of violence and repression added yet another layer of complexity to Burundi’s post-independence history. In just over fifty years, an untold number of Burundians have lost their lives or have been affected by wave after wave of crises. Yet almost no noteworthy efforts to deliver justice, provide redress or clarify the country’s history have been made to date, with the transitional justice stipulations set out in the Arusha Agreement having been non-starters for decades. More recently, Burundi’s first Truth and Reconciliation Commission (2014-2018) concluded its work, but with few results having been achieved. A second TRC was inaugurated in 2018, with a large number of changes introduced to its mandate, including a requirement to uncover the truth about Burundi’s colonial past. For IW and our partners, it is at the local community level where transitional justice efforts will likely have the greatest impact. Supporting and encouraging community-based transitional justice initiatives is therefore among our key priorities.