Burundi: Conflict Profile

Burundi has seen 40 years of armed violence and civil war since gaining independence from Belgium in 1962. The conflicts, rooted in political and historical tensions between the ethnic Hutu majority and Tutsi minority populations, have killed more than 300,000 people. Although much of the violence has subsided in recent years, political instability and unresolved grievances continue to threaten inter-ethnic cooperation and security in the country.

Divide and rule? The roots of conflict

There is controversy over the degree to which colonial policy created ethnic conflict
During the colonial period, modern day Burundi was part of German East Africa, a colony that also included Rwanda and Tanganyika (modern day Tanzania). After Germany’s defeat in World War I, the League of Nations divided the German colonial territory between Britain and Belgium. Belgium renamed the territory Ruanda-Urundi, and governed through military occupation from 1916 to 1924. Ruanda-Urundi was then made a mandate of the League of Nations. In 1945, the UN transitioned the territory into a trust, and the area remained under Belgian administrative authority from 1945 until independence in 1962.

While under Belgian control, the lands of Ruanda-Urundi were used to earn profits for the colonial empire. To control the majority Hutu population, the Belgian administrators reinforced existing power structures, namely the Tutsi ruling class led by Mwami Mwambutsa IV. Under Belgian rule, ethnic divisions were institutionalised into governing policies that economically and politically favoured Tutsis over Hutus.

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

In both Rwanda and Burundi, there is controversy over the degree to which colonial policies created these ethnic classifications, or whether they merely took advantage of existing divisions. Regardless, it is generally agreed that these classifications became potent points of division in both countries, that continue to shape politics and society today.

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

Killing thy neighbour: a history of violence

In 1972, Hutu organisations carried out systematic attacks on ethnic Tutsis with the declared intent of annihilating the whole group. The Tutsi-dominated military regime responded with large-scale reprisals targeting Hutus. The estimates of the casualties of these killings exceed 100,000, and thousands of asylum-seekers fled to Tanzania and Rwanda to escape the violence. In 1988, Hutu groups again reorganised and conducted attacks against Tutsi peasants in the north of the country. In response, the Tutsi-led army massacred thousands of Hutus, killing anywhere from 5,000 – 50,000 people.

Events in 1973 and 1993 are considered to constitute genocide
After elections in 1993, Melchior Ndadaye became the first democratically elected Hutu head of state, leading a pro-Hutu government. In October 1993, however, Tutsi soldiers assassinated Ndadaye, setting off another round of violence. The violence escalated into genocide in early 1994, after the newly elected Hutu president Cyprien Ntaryamira was killed, along with Rwanda’s president Juvenal Habyarimana, when their plane was shot down over Kigali. The wave of violence that followed is estimated to have killed nearly 300,000 people, many of them civilians. The 1972 and the 1993 mass killings are considered to be genocides, according to 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.

Regional actors, including former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere and then-South African president Nelson Mandela, led a long series of peace talks to resolve the conflict between 1993 and 2003. Numerous peace agreements and power-sharing deals were signed, most notably the Arusha Accords in 2000, but inter-ethnic violence continued to break out on a regular basis. In November 2003 a major Hutu rebel group, the Forces for Defense of Democracy (FDD), signed a ceasefire agreement, ending the civil war. In 2009 Burundi’s last Hutu rebel group, the Forces for National Liberation (FNL), officially laid down arms and transformed into a political party.

Mending social fabric: elections and prospects for peace

The current government, led by President Pierre Nkurunziza, is ethnically mixed, with 60 per cent Hutus and 40 per cent Tutsis in accordance with the constitution. However, the political situation in the country remains very fragile. The 2010 elections saw the re-election of Pierre Nkurunziza amid claims of a fraudulent election by opposition parties, who boycotted the polls.

Observers have warned about the possibility of renewed conflict
Since then, increasingly authoritarian behaviour on the part of the government has led observers to warn about the possibility of renewed conflict. The leader of the FNL, Agathon Rwasa, went into hiding in 2010 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 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. Opposition supporters have been jailed and critics have accused the government of restricting media and political freedoms. Extreme poverty, a lack of law and order and ongoing human right violations, as well as the difficulty of integrating former rebels into state institutions, continue to be major barriers to stability and sustainable peace in the country.

Presidential elections are scheduled for June 2015, and President Nkurunziza has declared his intent to run for a third term, though critics say that the constitution only allows for two terms. In May 2015, there was an attempted coup d’état, with uncertain consequences.

Last updated: April 2015. 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.