Archive:  Burundi

Pre-colonial history | Colonisation | Early independence | The Republic of BurundiCivil war | Recovering from war | Resources

A map showing Burundi's position in Africa

Burundi is a small landlocked country in central Africa, bordering Tanzania to the south and east, the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west and Rwanda to the north. The capital Bujumbura lies on the shores of Lake Tanganyika. The official languages are French and Kirundi.

Burundi Timeline

Pre-colonial history

Historically, the area of ‘Urundi’ (now called Burundi) was part of a large kingdom dominated by a king, or mwami, espousing no dominant ethnicity label – he embodied the nation. The highest social class, the Ganwa, composed the aristocracy. The remaining social classes divided among the principally Tutsi elite and then a large working class of mostly Hutus, although many Hutu chiefs and Bashingantahe (wise men) held prominent positions in society. The Twa, however, comprised only a small portion of the population and do not seem to have attained any leadership roles.

The first mwami of Burundi was Ntare I, who ruled at the end of the 17th century and had dominion over an area roughly one third the size of modern Burundi. Governance was fairly decentralised; regional princes enjoyed a certain level of autonomy. Then in the 18th century the authority of the mwami was consolidated with the introduction of the ubugabire – a patron-client relationship by which the people received royal protection in exchange for tribute and land tenure. This system was a more stable and inclusive version of Rwanda’s similar pre-colonial feudal state.

The growing kingdom was located near major waterways, namely Lake Tanganyika, which provided easy access for trade. The town of Ujiji on the shores of the lake was the last major trading center of the Caravan Trade Route, and it trafficked slaves and ivory coming from different parts of the region, including eastern Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda and Burundi, to the Red Sea. The arrival of the Arab traders from Zanzibar coincided with the first European explorers to the region. While neither group attempted to directly annex the interior kingdoms, in time the European role would expand.


The 1850s saw the first European missionaries and explorers in the area, the most notable of which was probably John Hanning Speke, who would travel north to Uganda and identify the source of the Nile River. An Austrian cartographer named Oscar Baumann created the first regional map of eastern Africa for Europeans.

Under the terms of the 1884 Berlin Conference, Germany gained control of Urundi and its neighbours Ruanda and Tanganyika (modern Rwanda and Tanzania, respectively). By 1899 the kingdom of Urundi was incorporated into German East Africa. Much revered Mwami Mwambutsa IV was enthroned in 1915 following the untimely death of his father and ruled through a regent queen until he came of age in 1929. The young Mwami would lead his country through the next several decades of political changes.

In the aftermath of World War I, Belgian troops occupied Urundi and Ruanda. The joint territory of Ruanda-Urundi, now separate from Tanganyika, came under Belgian administration in 1923 according to a League of Nations mandate. Like the Germans before them the Belgian colonisers retained the existing governance structure but made a few changes to the state, enforcing new taxes and occasionally forced labour as well – particularly on coffee plantations which were industrialised for export to Europe. Then between 1926 and 1933, Belgium made some serious reforms drawn on ethnic lines. Tutsis were perceived as natural rulers and Hutus as obedient followers. Belgium introduced identity cards, making official class distinctions by categorising the population according to Hutu, Tutsi, Twa, or ‘naturalised’ citizenship. All Hutu authorities were dismissed.

As the United Nations replaced the former League of Nations following World War II, ‘Ruanda-Urundi’ became a UN Trust Territory with Belgium as its administrative authority in 1946. Belgium governed Ruanda-Urundi as an extension of nearby Belgian Congo. A Lieutenant Governor oversaw the territory from its capital city, Bujumbura. As a UN trustee, Ruanda-Urundi would gradually transition to political and economic independence; the Belgians therefore encouraged the growth of democratic political institutions, including the formation of political parties.

By 1959, two parties had emerged. The Union for National Progress (UPRONA) was a multi-ethnic nationalist party led by Prince Louis Rwagasore, the eldest son of Mwami Mwambutsa and equally popular among Tutsi and Hutu. Its primary opposition was the Christian Democratic Party (PDC) led by chiefs sympathetic to Belgium, which had helped establish the party.

In the 1961 legislative elections to determine post-independence leadership, UPRONA won a decisive victory and worked to establish a government representative of the various ethnicities and political parties. These efforts contrasted sharply with neighbouring Rwanda’s ongoing ‘social revolution’ from 1959-1962, in which widespread ethnic violence resulted in mass displacements and an influx of Rwandan Tutsi refugees into Burundi. The promising government was short-lived, however, as Rwagasore was assassinated on 13 October 1961, allegedly by agents of the PDC. His brother-in-law André Muhirwa took his place as Prime Minister designate. On 21 December, both Ruanda and Urundi were granted internal autonomy, though Belgium maintained both territories’ external relations, internal public order, and defence.

The UN General Assembly adopted a new resolution that established a Commission for Ruanda-Urundi to determine a course to independence. At its culminating conference in Addis Ababa in 1962, the Commission reported on its findings and attempted to create ‘the closest possible form of political, economic and administrative union between Rwanda and Burundi.’ At this conference, too, 1 July was set as the final date terminating the trusteeship and removing Belgian troops. By late June, the UN adopted another resolution – finally granting Rwanda and Burundi their independence.

Early independence

The country gained full independence from Belgium on 1 July 1962, at which point the former Urundi territory officially separated from newly renamed Republic of Rwanda and became the Kingdom of Burundi, a constitutional monarchy. Mwami Mwambutsa retained André Muhirwa, a Tutsi, as Prime Minister despite the Hutu majority in parliament. Less than a year later, with a stagnant and divided national assembly, Prime Minister Muhirwa handed in his resignation and the mwami became responsible for balancing his government. He began by appointing a Hutu, Pierre Ngendandumwe, to the post of Prime Minister.

UPRONA, which had become strongly representative of Hutu interests following the assassination of Prince Rwagasore, quickly came to dominate Burundian politics as the majority, indeed the only political party. Ethnic tensions increasingly became political and dissenters of UPRONA policy would be handled violently over the next several decades.

The presence of Rwandan refugees fleeing similar ethnic troubles exacerbated these tensions in Burundi. Thousands of Tutsis had left Rwanda in the time leading up to independence, and the formation of the Tutsi group Inyenzi fomented a sense of nationalism. The term inyenzi, a Kinyarwandan word meaning ‘cockroaches,’ had been a slang name for Tutsis, conjuring up notions of ‘extermination.’ In time, the group used the word inyenzi to cultivate the image that they were stealthy and un-crushable. They mobilised several thousand Tutsis to stage organised invasions on Kigali from Burundi and Uganda. Each attempted invasion, heralding a ‘return to their homeland,’ turned violent and all were unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Hutus facing Tutsi persecution in Burundi fled to Rwanda as refugees. When Prime Minister Ngendandumwe was replaced in April 1964 with Tutsi Albin Nyamoya, the ethno-political balance tipped further.

As an indicator of Burundi’s political unrest, between 1965 and 1966 political leadership traded hands no fewer than seven times. In January 1965, Pierre Ngendandumwe was again appointed Prime Minister to replace Nyamoya but was assassinated a few days later by a Tutsi refugee from Rwanda. His deputy Pié Masumbuko then served as acting prime minister for little more than a week before Joseph Bamina took over. Four months later Burundi held its first parliamentary elections as an independent state. Unsurprisingly, UPRONA emerged victorious running on a Hutu-interest platform. Yet Mwami Mwambutsa appointed a royal Tutsi, Prince Léopold Biha, to serve as prime minister.

In late 1965, a Hutu military revolt claimed approximately 500 Tutsi lives; Tutsi soldiers led by Major Michel Micombero retaliated with organized attacks against Hutus, killing most Hutu members of the army, gendarmerie, and many Hutu political leaders – including former Prime Minister Bamina. Hutu deaths are estimated to have been around 5,000, and Micombero was later offered the position of Secretary of Defense.

Léopold Biha’s leadership lasted only until Prince Ndizeye overthrew his father, the reigning Mwami Mwambutsa IV, to become Mwami Ntare V in July 1966. The new king removed Prime Minister Biha from office, consolidated political control with the monarchy, and appointed Michel Micombero prime minister. Only a few months later, Micombero led a coup, abolished the monarchy, dissolved the parliament, established one-party rule (UPRONA), and declared the First Republic of Burundi with himself as primary leader. Mwami Ntare V fled into exile in West Germany. Though republic in name, Burundi would be governed by military rule and nearly three decades of Tutsi leadership.

The Republic of Burundi

President Micombero supported a move toward African socialism, coinciding with the Mobutuism movement in neighbouring Republic of Congo (DRC today). Micombero’s primary foreign allies likewise represented leftist regimes. Within Burundi, this state-centric approach to governance allowed the military significant freedom of enforcement. Although all public references to ethnicity were officially suppressed, the military overwhelmingly targeted Hutu offenders, many of whom would take up arms against the Tutsi-dominant government. Furthermore, the economy had slowly declined since independence. Economic leaders were largely unfamiliar with the international system and struggled to keep pace. Frequent internal conflict discouraged economic growth and exacerbated social problems.

In the spring of 1972, Burundi experienced killings on a massive scale in a period called Ikiza. Hutu members of the gendarmerie revolted against the Tutsi population in southern Burundi; estimates of those who died range from 800 to 1200 Tutsis. President Micombero responded quickly, establishing martial law and sanctioning military reprisals against the insurgents. At the hand of the Tutsi military, death estimates range between 150,000 and 300,000, the vast majority of them Hutus. Notably, Hutus and Tutsis were both victims and perpetrators at separate times and varying degrees.

Ikiza | The Scourge

In the southern province of Bururi, as Mwami Ntare V returned from exile to live in his royal residence in Gitera, a small group of Hutu intellectuals in neighbouring Tanzania, allegedly supported by Congolese armed groups, staged an insurgence to claim power from the ruling Tutsis. In a matter of days, hundreds (possibly thousands) of Tutsis were killed, including Mwami Ntare.

The Tutsi-dominant military rapidly organised. Systematic attacks against Burundian Hutus swept across the country and lasted for months. Educated Hutus, even those still students at the time, were specifically targeted. At least 100,000 were killed, but some of the much higher estimates would be supported by accounting for those missing and presumed dead. As many as 300,000 Hutus were prompted to flee the country as refugees, primarily to TanzaniaZaire (now DRC), and Rwanda. In Tanzania, a militant and strongly anti-Tutsi movement arose called the Parti pour la Libération du Peuple Hutu (PALIPEHUTU).

Scholars today disagree on how to describe this period of Burundian history, debating use of the term ‘genocide.’ The United Nations, too, varies in its application of the label, though a 1985 report by Benjamin Whitaker suggests that the usage is appropriate.

The military rule continued after a bloodless coup raised Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bagaza to power in 1976. He centralised authority and introduced a new constitution in 1981 that made Burundi a one-party state. All citizens were then considered members of UPRONA. By 1982, Bagaza held a parliamentary election to re-create a Burundian National Assembly. Two years later, in the country’s first presidential election since independence, Bagaza received 99.63% of the national vote – he was the sole electoral candidate.

Despite cosmetic popularity, national and international reception of Bagaza’s administration was markedly less enthusiastic. Human rights advocates and organisations criticised his government for democratic fallacies such as rigged elections, press censorship, and political and religious repression. Notably, Bagaza detained large numbers of people in political opposition. To further complicate matters, Burundi under Bagaza was economically weak. International aid supported up to half of all government expenses – plunging the country into debt. Its chief commodity export, coffee, fell victim to the world collapse of coffee prices in the mid 1980s. Then in 1986, the World Bank and International Monetary Fund imposed a structural adjustment programme aimed at assisting Burundi to repay its debts but meanwhile straining the economy further.

Colonel Bagaza was overthrown in 1987 by Major Pierre Buyoya. He dissolved UPRONA, suspended the 1981 constitution, and instituted his ruling Military Committee for National Salvation (CSMN). He also released hundreds political prisoners in efforts to ease ethnic tensions. During 1988, the ruling Tutsis and the majority Hutus clashed in a period of extreme violence. The Ntega-Marangara events, as they came to be known, lasted from 10-22 August 1988 and resulted in over 20,000 people dead as another 150,000 fled abroad, primarily to Rwanda.

The Ntega-Marangara events

The events of 1988 strongly mirrored those of Ikiza in 1972 (Hutus rose against Tutsi civilians and the Tutsi military brutally retaliated), except in this instance the international community reacted. European news outlets printed the events and their contextual background. In the United States, Congress passed a non-binding resolution condemning the violence and urging President Buyoya to investigate the cause of conflict. Buyoya, for his part, complied by establishing a commission to determine the source of tension and to develop a charter for democratic reform.

Triggered by the provocations of a local Tutsi notable, Hutu instigated riots resulting in the loss of roughly 500 Tutsi civilians. The Burundian army stepped in, but used repressive measures that killed an estimated 15,000 Hutu (some estimates put this number closer to 25,000), and another 60,000 refugees left for Rwanda.

International pressure compelled President Buyoya to implement political changes. He appointed Adrien Sibomana Prime Minister, the first Hutu to hold the position since 1965, and filled other senior positions with Hutus as well. In October 1988 he established an ethnically representative Commission for National Unity to create an environment for reconciliation. The resulting Charter of National Unity outlined the founding principles of a new constitution, overwhelmingly approved in a 1992 referendum.

The first free elections were held in 1 June 1993. Melchior Ndadaye of the new Front Démocratique de Burundi party (FRODEBU) took 65% of the vote, successfully ousting the incumbent Buyoya. Subsequent legislative elections also replaced many UPRONA seats with FRODEBU members. Meanwhile, PALIPEHUTU – a Hutu party formed in Tanzania – split into two primary factions over its support for the new president.

Melchior Ndadaye was the country’s first Hutu president. He abolished military rule and began operating a pro-Hutu government in which he initiated several significant policy changes. Notably, these changes tended to benefit the Hutu population and undermine the Tutsi elite. He also provided for the return of Hutu refugees – some living abroad since 1972 – after which conflict arose over land and property rights. Hardline factions of the Tutsi-dominated armed forces felt threatened enough by these sweeping changes to assassinate Ndadaye and his vice president in October. A civil war soon followed in which tens of thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands of people were displaced.

Civil war

In the Burundian Civil War, political events – particularly those concerning the presidency and nearby international conflicts – triggered active conflict within Burundi, making the exact start and end dates of the civil war difficult to define. Nevertheless, the violence had drastic and devastating impacts.

Sylvie Kinigi (UPRONA) – the late President Ndadaye’s prime minister, and Burundi’s first and only female to hold the post – managed the government until January 1994, at which point FRODEBU regained control and appointed Cyprien Ntaryamira as the new president. Three months later, in early April 1994, Ntaryamira was killed together with Rwanda’s President Juvenal Habyarimana when their plane was shot down. This event is considered to have catalysed the violence which unfolded in Rwanda and Burundi.

Sylvestre Ntibantunganya was appointed president for a 4-year term on 8 April 1994. Still security steadily deteriorated over the next several years. The influx of hundreds of thousands of Rwandan refugees and the domestic activities of armed Hutu and Tutsi groups destabilised the regime.

In 1996 the former Hutu president Pierre Buyoya took power, eliminating the National Assembly. International governments (Tanzania, Kenya, Rwanda, Uganda, Zambia, Ethiopia, and Zaire) responded by imposing economic sanctions on Burundi. Continuing internal violence alternated with rounds of peace talks, including a monumental process culminating in October 2001 and moderated by South African President Nelson Mandela. The Arusha Agreement led to the installation of a transitional power-sharing government. Buyoya was formally sworn in as president, but would be required to step down after 18 months.

In January 2003, the newly-renamed African Union (formerly the Organisation for African Unity) deployed its first peacekeeping mission to Burundi. The United States deployed diplomatic and economic resources to support Burundian stability. In April 2003, Domitien Ndayizeye, another Hutu, succeeded Pierre Buyoya as president. At a summit of African leaders in Tanzania, President Ndayizeye signed an agreement with Pierre Nkurunziza, leader of the main Hutu group Conseil National pour la Défense de la Démocratie-Forces pour la Défense de la Démocratie (CNDD-FDD), to end the civil war. However, the Forces Nationales de Libération (FNL) remained active and some fighting continued.

On the evening of 13 August 2004, over 150 people were killed in an attack on a refugee camp for Congolese Tutsi refugees. The Hutu group FNL claimed responsibility for the attack, but added that their intention had been to attack a nearby military base. Nearby UN Peacekeepers and Burundian police did not intervene. This so-called Gatumba Massacre, threatened to exacerbate the civil violence in Burundi and even create an international conflict with the Democratic Republic of Congo.

In 2005, all armed groups except the FNL were incorporated into the national Burundian military. The public voted in support of a new power-sharing constitution in March, and in August the two houses of Parliament elected former CNDD-FDD leader Pierre Nkurunziza president. It was not until September 2006 that the last active armed group, the FNL, and the government signed a final ceasefire in Tanzania, officially ending Burundi’s civil war.

Recovering from war

During the first year of his presidency, Nkurunziza began breaking down the pillars of military rule. He lifted a curfew that had been in place since 1972; oversaw the conclusion of UN peacekeeping operations within Burundian borders; supported the transition of the FNL from an armed group to a political party; and appointed Godefroid Niyombare, a Hutu and former armed group member, as the first Hutu chief of general staff of the army.

Today Burundi is on a path to recovery. Ethnic divisions have calmed considerably since their peak in the 1990s and although modern Burundians may still identify as Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa, the latent hatred for the other groups is lessened. Some people even attempt to make light of these labels. Economic sanctions against Burundi had gradually been rolled back over the years, and in early 2009 international creditors erased millions of dollars of debt Burundi owed by employing the Enhanced Heavily Indebted Poor Countries (HIPC) mechanism. Aid projects that had been suspended during the civil war were resumed in the 2000s. Burundi has made progress toward meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) but is unlikely to meet all benchmarks by 2015.

Burundi’s economy is based almost entirely on agriculture, accounting for 45% of GDP in 2009 and supporting more than 90% of the labour force. Although Burundi is potentially self-sufficient in food production, the civil war, overpopulation, and soil erosion have contributed to the contraction of the subsistence economy by 30% in recent years. Coffee sales constitute approximately 50% of the country’s export earnings. The mining industry also contributes considerably to the economy – gold and nickel are amongst the most valuable mining commodities. However, Burundi remains heavily dependent on bilateral and multilateral aid.

Large numbers of internally displaced persons have been unable to produce their own food and are dependent on international humanitarian assistance. A major issue facing Burundi today is the return of refugees from Tanzania whose land has been claimed by people displaced internally during the war. Returning refugees from Rwanda and DRC pose an additional threat. Violent conflict as a means of settling land disputes is increasingly common. In May 2012, Human Rights Watch reported a significant increase in political violence, including the emergence of a a new armed group in neighbouring DRC called the Murundi People’s Front Abatabazi.

Nkurunziza was retained as president in the elections of 2010, and in recent years has consolidated executive power. International observers of the 2010 elections regretted the absence of competition after opposition parties boycotted the vote. They complained of rigged district elections and formed the Alliance of Democrats for Change (ADC-Ikibiri) to strengthen opposition. Violence before and after polling day contributed to fears of renewed civil war. Since 2011, human rights groups have complained about increasing government restrictions placed on press and media. In June 2013, President Nkurunziza approved a new law forbidding reporting information that could undermine national security, public order, or the economy. This policy has given rise to both domestic and international dispute and petitions to protect press freedoms.

This page last updated February 2014.


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