Burundi: Conflict Profile

Burundi has suffered from over 40 years of armed ethnic conflict and civil war since independence in 1962. The cost of the conflict is estimated at more than 300,000 lives lost, with over 100,000 civilians displaced. A ceasefire was signed in 2003 between the Tutsi-controlled government and the largest Hutu rebel group. Although the civil war has technically ended, unrest and instability still threaten peace cooperation between Tutsis and Hutus.

Divide and Rule: The Roots of the Conflict

The roots of the ethnic conflict in Burundi existed prior to Independence in 1962. The conflict arises from the tensions between the mainly Hutu majority (currently 85% of the population) and Tutsi minority (currently 15 per cent of the population).

Originally, during in the colonial period in Africa in the late 19th century, Burundi was part of German East Africa in the southeast consisting of Burundi, Rwanda and Tanganyika (modern day Tanzania). After the defeat of Imperial Germany in World War I, the League of Nations divided the German colonial territory between Britain and Belgium. It was renamed Ruanda-Urundi and governed under Belgian military occupation from 1916 to 1924, then given class B mandate status by the League of Nations, between 1924 and 1945. The UN transitioned the mandated territory into a trust still under Belgian administrative authority from 1945 to 1962.

While under Belgian control, the lands of Ruanda-Urundi were used to earn profits for the colonial empire. These funds were raised through the heavy taxation of the population and forced labour practices to cultivate coffee. The Belgian administrators used existing power structures, with the Tutsi the ruling class, in a monarchy led by Mwami Mwambutsa IV, which controlled the mostly Hutu population. Under Belgian rule, these ethnic divisions were stratified and institutionalised into governing policies, favouring Tutsis over Hutus.

In Rwanda and Burundi, there is a great deal of historical controversy over to what degree colonial policies either created ethnic classifications, or merely used existing divisions. However, it is generally agreed that those divisions remain potent to this day.

By United Nations Photo, published under the creative commons license.

On January 20, 1959, Mwami Mwambutsa IV requested that the Belgian Minister of Colonies dissolve Ruanda-Urundi and create two separate states of Burundi and Rwanda. Burundi claimed independence on July 1, 1962, instituting a constitutional monarchy with Mwami Mwambutsa IV as king with the Hutus and Tutsis represented in parliament.  The constitutional monarchy was short lived, with Mwambutsa first deposed by his son Prince Ntare V in 1966, and then abolished in a coup by Tutsi Prime Minister Captain Michel Micombero. This marked the beginning of a series of military and non-democratic regimes that would dominate Burundian politics for years to come.

Killing thy neighbour: history of the conflict

In 1972, Hutus organised and carried out systematic attacks on ethnic Tutsi with the declared intent of annihilating the whole group. The military regime responded with large-scale reprisals targeting Hutus. The estimates of the casualties of Tutsi and the reprisals against Hutus are said to exceed 100,000 with a similar number of asylum-seekers in Tanzania and Rwanda. In 1988, these Hutu groups reorganised and conducted more attacks against Tutsi peasants in the north of the country.

In 1993, Melchior Ndadaye won elections as the first democratically elected Hutu and led a pro-Hutu government. In October of that year, Tutsi soldiers assassinated Ndadaye, which engulfed Hutus and Tutsis in another round of violence. Further violence ensued following the assassination of the newly elected Hutu Burundi president Cyprien Ntaryamira and Rwanda’s President Juvenal Habyarimana. Both died together when their plane was shot down in 1994, setting off a wave of ethnic violence and genocides in both Burundi and Rwanda. An estimated 250,000 people died in Burundi between 1962 and 1993. Two events, the 1972 mass killings of Hutus by the Tutsi-dominated army and the 1993 mass killings of Tutsis by the Hutu populace are considered genocides (presented in the final report by the International Commission of Inquiry for Burundi presented to the UN Security Council in 2002.

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Grenades handed in as part of a decomissioning ceremony. Photo credit: Laura Gordon, The Advocacy Project. Uploaded under a Creative Commons License.

Between 1993 and 2003 there were many rounds of peace talks overseen by regional actors, such as former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere and then-South African president Nelson Mandela. The numerous peace agreements, most notably the Arusha Accords, and the 2006 ceasefire agreement – have proven to be fragile and inter-ethnic conflict violence has broken 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 arms and was transformed into a political party.

Mending the social fabric: prospects for peace

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 claims of a fraudulent election by the opposition parties who boycotted the polls.  In January 2011 a new UN mission began in Burundi, the UN Integrated Office in Burundi.

Events since, 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 politicians and party activists on both sides. In September 2011, a massacre in a bar popular with government supporters, heightened 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. The integration of former rebels into state institutions and the security forces, as well as other issues, also remain unresolved.

Last updated: March 2014. Background information published on Insight on Conflict is compiled by volunteer researchers and does not reflect the opinions of Peace Direct. For information on how you can contribute to this site, please contact us.