Dictionary of Gross Human Rights Violations

By - Kjell Follingstad Anderson 

On the surface the politics and human rights situation in Burundi and Rwanda seem nearly identical: ethnic polarisation between the Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority, genocidal massacres, authoritarian governments, etc. In fact, Burundi seems to be the historical mirror image of Rwanda with a Tutsi regime oppressing Hutus while, for many years, Rwanda could be characterised as a predominately Hutu regime persecuting Tutsis. In spite of these similarities, the post-colonial state in Burundi has evolved in a distinctive fashion. Historically, politics in Burundi have not exclusively revolved around an ethnic axis, although this is increasingly the case. It is difficult to find accurate statistics on the ethnic composition of Burundi but informed estimates approximate a population which is 80% Hutu and 20% Tutsi.[1] These figures exclude significant, but indeterminate, minorities of Ganwa (the traditional aristocracy, usually considered to be a unique ethnic group) and Swahili-speaking foreigners (largely from Tanzania and the Democratic Republic of Congo).

From 1885 until World War One Burundi was a German colony (together with Rwanda as Rwanda-Urundi), and from the end of the First World War until 1962 it was a trust territory administered by Belgium. Ethnic identity was important in the pre-colonial era but it was just one factor demarcating politics and society among other factors such as class and family lineage. In many ways the ethnic polarisation of Rwandan society impacted Burundi and contributed towards the paramountcy of ethnicity in political discourse. Both Rwanda and Burundi were stratified societies headed by a monarch (the mwami) with a cattle-raising elite (predominately Tutsis), farmers (Hutus), and a hunter-gatherer underclass (the Twa pygmies). In a 1961 revolution Hutus in Rwanda overthrew the mwami and seized power. This led to a period of violent repression where tens of thousands of Rwandan Tutsis were killed and hundreds of thousands fled the country to become refugees in Uganda, Burundi, and elsewhere. 
The Rwandan revolution had a profound effect on ethnic relations in Burundi as the Tutsi minority in Burundi began to perceive a Hutu “threat” to their hegemony or even their survival. When Burundi became independent in 1962 it was still a monarchy but four years late the mwami was overthrown in a military coup by Tutsi commoners. The Tutsi regime systematically discriminated against Hutus and excluded them from power. Hutu resistance groups regularly tried to seize power and it was after a Hutu uprising in 1972 that the worst massacre in the history of Burundi began.
The repression of the Hutu revolt was led by the Burundi army and a Tutsi militia called the Jeunesse Révolutionnaire Rwangasore (JRR). Zairean paratroopers (allies of the government) guarded the airport, martial law and a curfew was declared, and the JRR and army began its synchronised slaughter in rural Burundi. Educated Hutus were the primary target of this genocidal campaign and Hutu leadership cadres (any Hutus with a secondary school education or beyond) were decimated. In some secondary and post-secondary institutions nearly all of the Hutu students were murdered. In all an estimated 100 000 to 200 000 people were killed. The effect of the 1972 genocide was to further entrench the institutionalised subjugation of the Hutus in Burundi. Hutus were denied access to education, jobs, political power, and positions in the army. 
While there were relatively brief periods of détente, the next fifteen years in Burundi largely featured a regime which governed through fear, oppression, and paranoia. In 1988 Burundi once again experienced gross human rights violations as the communes Marangara and Ntega (in Ngozi and Kirundo provinces respectively) exploded into communal violence. Hutus in Marangara and Ntega mobilised in response to perceived threats and began to indiscriminately attack their Tutsi neighbours. The government responded by sending in the army (almost completely comprised of Tutsis) which engaged in a completely disproportionate response that, rather than quelling the violence, added a new dimension to it. As many as twenty thousand people were killed and tens of thousands of Hutus became refugees and fled to Rwanda.[2]
By the early1990s it appeared that Burundi was finally on a path towards inclusive government and improved human rights. A government of national unity had been formed and institutional barriers to Hutu political and economic participation were being lifted. The election of Melchior Ndadaye, Burundi’s first Hutu president, in June of 1993 seemed to confirm the changing state of affairs.   However four months later Ndadaye was assassinated by the army. This sparked outrage throughout the country as Hutu militants reacted by killing as many Tutsis as they could. Once again the army intervened in a brutal manner to “restore order.” Fifty thousand people were killed in this latest genocide.[3] In 1994 another Hutu (Cyprien Ntaryamira) was selected (by parliament) as president, but he was killed in the same plane crash in April 1994 that killed President Habyarimana of Rwanda.
After another period of tentative steps towards rights and democracy another Hutu president (Sylvestre Ntibantunganya) was once again overthrown by the army (led by Major Pierre Buyoya). Hutu insurgent groups grew increasingly active, buoyed by Burundi Hutu refugees in neighbouring Rwanda, Tanzania, and Democratic Republic of the Congo. By 1998 Burundi was in a state of full-blown civil war with numerous atrocities committed by both the army and various rebel groups. Over three hundred thousand people died, and five hundred fifty thousand were displaced in the war and associated violence.[4] After years of negotiations and a numerous agreements there was a referendum on a new constitution in February 2005 followed by a successful election in July 2005.  

The situation in Burundi seems to be improving but giving the violent history of the country and the legacy of inequality peace remains tenuous and human rights are not fully realised. The presence of rebel groups and substantial numbers of refugees in neighbouring countries also poses challenges for Burundi’s security. Burundi is seeking to deal with its recent gross human rights violations through both a truth and reconciliation commission and a special tribunal (most likely an ad hoc tribunal like the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda or a hybrid tribunal like the Special Court for Sierra Leone).

[1]               René Lemarchand, Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996), p. 6.
[2] Lemarchand 126.
[3] Lemarchand xiv.