Burundi: Conflict Profile
Since its independence from Belgium in 1962, Burundi has been plagued by ethnic violence and the widening social divisions between the majority Hutu (85 per cent of the population) and minority Tutsi (15 per cent of the population) ethnic groups.
Ethnic conflicts in Burundi however, predate Independence. Together with present-day Rwanda, Burundi was part of the colonial territories of first Germany, then Belgium, as Ruanda-Urundi. Under Belgian rule, ethnicity was marked on identity cards, and the Tutsi community – or at least the Tutsi elite – tended to be favoured by the colonial authorities. There is a great deal of historical controversy over to what degree colonial policies either created ethnic classifications, or merely used existing divisions in Rwanda and Burundi; it is however generally agreed that colonial policies embedded ethnic divisions in Burundi society that remain potent to this day.
A series of military and non-democratic regimes ruled Burundi after Independence in 1962. It is believed that violent repressions of the Hutu population in 1965, when King Mwambutsa IV refused to appoint the elected Hutu Prime Minister (Pierre Ngendandumwe), and in 1972, when the armed forces again struck against the Hutu population, were the main contributors to the political conditions that produced the open civil war in 1993. In that year, the assassination of Burundi’s first democratically elected and first Hutu President, Melchior Ndadaye, after just four months in office, led to widespread ethnic violence that would last more than a decade. Around 200,000 people died in the fighting, which also sparked an unprecedented refugee and internally displaced people (IDP) crisis.
As the conflict raged internally, fighting also spilled over into neighbouring countries – Rwanda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Tanzania and Uganda. Indeed, the Democratic Republic of Congo has been involved in some funding of rebel groups, while Burundi has been used as a sanctuary for rebels fighting the Kinshasa administration.
The numerous peace agreements – most notably the Arusha Accords, and the 2006 ceasefire agreement – have proven to be fragile and inter-ethnic conflict violence broke out on regular basis. Recent signs of hope came in April 2009 when Burundi’s last rebel group, the Forces for National Liberation (FNL), laid down its arms and was transformed into a political party.
After 15 years of conflict, Burundi’s recent progress in the political situation can be viewed with optimism. The current government is ethnically mixed with 60 per cent Hutus and 40 per cent Tutsis, in accordance with the constitution. However, any optimism is tempered with caution, as the situation remains very fragile. The 2010 elections saw the re-election of Pierre Nkurunziza amid calls of a fradulent election by the opposition parties who boycotted the election. In January 2011 a new UN mission began in Burundi, named the UN Integrated Office in Burundi, known as BNUB and will have an initial 12-month mandate.
Events since last years elections have raised fears of renewed conflict. The leader of the FNL, Agathon Rwasa went into hiding, and is rumoured to be reorganising his forces across the border in Eastern DR Congo. There have been a number of brutal killings in FNL strongholds by what the government call ‘armed bandits’ and murders of polititians and party activists on both sides. In September 2011, a massacre in a bar popular with government supporters heightend tensions and increased fears of a return to civil war.
The peace process depends on the ability of the current government to build strong institutions to foster democracy. There are concerns that the government is too weak to control the situation as the extreme poverty, lack of law and order and human right violations still remain as barriers to stability. Additionally, the issue of the integration of former rebels into state institution and security forces is unresolved.
Last updated: September 2011