Publication Party / Movement History - State / Democracy - Political Parties / Election Analyses - Participation / Civil Rights - Africa - East Africa Burundi’s Enduring Legacy of Ethnic Violence and Political Conflict

Without a fundamental change of course, the country’s spiral of violence threatens to continue



February 2019

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A protester sets up a barricade during a protest against Burundi President Pierre Nkurunziza and his bid for a third term in Bujumbura, Burundi, May 22, 2015. REUTERS/Goran Tomasevic

There is blood everywhere in Burundi. I want to forget about that country including my name but I cannot. Awake or in sleep, I am taunted by memories of the people I heard screaming before they were hacked to death and the brutally massacred dead bodies I jumped trying to escape into Congo. The dead bodies are everywhere. I feel sorry for my children who have witnessed the violence and deprivations that no child should ever be exposed to.

 -Santiana Marie, a Burundian refugee in the Democratic Republic of Congo

Burundi’s recent wave of violence, political unrest, and human rights violations commenced in April 2015 when President Pierre Nkurunziza broke with the constitution and announced he was running for a third term. Government security forces, intelligence services, and the ruling party’s youth league (known as the “Imbonerakure”) began targeting dissidents both real and imagined. Since then, Burundians have experienced killings, abductions, torture, rape, intimidation of suspected opponents, and arbitrary arrests forcing people like Santiana to seek refuge in neighbouring countries. The situation continues to deteriorate as the government suppresses freedom of expression and cracks down on human rights activists, humanitarian organizations, and journalists. On 17 May 2018 Burundians were forced to participate in a constitutional referendum designed to enable Nkurunziza to remain in power until 2034, but Nkurunziza later announced he would step down at the end of his current term in 2020. Prior to the referendum the president warned Burundians that anyone who dared to “sabotage” the revision of the constitution “by word or action” would be crossing “a red line”. On 27 September Burundi’s National Security Council suspended international non-governmental organizations for failing to comply with the ethnic quota law stipulating that recruitment procedures must target 60 percent Hutu and 40 percent Tutsi, aggravating the longue durée of Hutu–Tutsi division. As Burundi prepares for the 2020 elections, the country is once again heading into a perilous future since the power sharing institutions between Hutu and Tutsi that were created during the Arusha Accord and enabled the country to avoid bloody conflicts between 1993 and 2005 have been eroded.

Burundi’s intractable ethnic conflict(s), violence, political unrest, human rights violations, corruption, impunity, war crimes, and crimes against humanity are rooted in the country’s colonial past. The Belgian separation of Burundi from Ruanda-Urundi, leading to the creation of an independent Burundi kingdom under king Mwambutsa IV with a Hutu majority (about 85 percent) and Tutsi minority (about 15 percent), fostered ethnic polarization, mutual hatred, and persistent violence. As was the case in Rwanda, the Belgians considered the Tutsi the superior race and entrusted them with administrative matters, while the Hutu, perceived as inferior, were at the service of the Tutsi. After colonialism, post-independence Burundi was shaped by undemocratic political processes, unscrupulous indigenous political elites, weak state institutions, ethnic polarization and its influence on political behaviour, and the structural injustices that reinforce poverty and underdevelopment. The search for national reconstruction, unity, peace, truth, reconciliation, justice, and development has proven difficult under these circumstances. Peacebuilding processes so far have included the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement (APRA) and the establishment of the Truth and Reconciliation commission (TRC), as well as the July 2015 East African Community (EAC) selection of President Museveni as the mediator for inter-Burundian dialogue and former Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa as the facilitator. However, these processes failed to deliver a comprehensive package of democratic transfer of political power, economic security, reconciliation, and restorative and retributive justice between the two ethnic groups. Recurrent conflicts suggest that issues dating back to the colonial era must be addressed for sustainable peace, security, and development to occur. Anything less is like placing a Band-Aid over a gaping wound.

A Troubled History

Although the violence in Burundi sparks international outcry, it shows no signs of abating. In order to establish why Burundi’s predicament remains volatile and what is needed to construct sustainable peace, security, and development, it is crucial to examine the socio-political evolution of the conflict. The present cannot be dissociated from the past.

The original inhabitants of Burundi were the Twa people, later squeezed out by the migration of the agriculturalist Hutu and pastoralist Tutsi. Prior to colonization, Burundians co-existed peacefully in a social-political hierarchy under the leadership of the king (Mwami) who was neither Tutsi nor Hutu. Below the king were the Tutsi-Banyaruguru, followed by ordinary Tutsi pastoralists and Tutsi-Hima, and then the agriculturalist Hutu masses and Twa hunters. The Baganwa (king’s sons) served as intermediaries between the king and the people. There were also the custodian of justice, the Bashingantahe (drawn from both the Hutu and Tutsi), who mediated and settled social conflicts.

Rwanda-Urundi was formally colonized by Germany in 1891. After World War I the League of Nations entrusted the colony to Belgium. Relations between the three ethnic groups were largely amicable until the colonizers, pursuing a strategy of “divide and conquer” laced with racism, promoted the subjugation of the Hutu and relative elevation of the Tutsi. British army officer John Hanning Speke created the theory of the so-called “Hamitic race” which posited that the Tutsi were morphologically closer to Europeans than the Hutu. Hamitic race theory was augmented by eugenics, widespread during the interwar era. The Tutsi were manipulated by the colonizers who considered them superior to the Hutu, accorded them greater power and influence, and entrusted them with administrative roles along with economic and social privileges while the Hutu were subjected to manual labour, oppression, and cruelty from the Tutsi elites. When the Belgians introduced coffee production under the corvée system, Tutsi officials compelled Hutu farmers to grow coffee on the land they had lost to King Rwabugiri (1853–1895)[1] or face death, and were subjected to ten daily lashes before commencing their labour as a reminder to adhere to required work norms. The Tutsi continued to guard their privileges in the post-independence period, controlling the government, military, and economy and engaging in continuous power struggles with the Hutu. Political and economic control along with inequality and exclusionary policies practiced against the Hutu by the colonizers and Tutsi elites prevented them from exercising their political and economic rights and fostered ethnic polarization, hatred, and fear between the two groups. These structural injustices remain essential to social relationships and competitive interests even today.

Upon independence, Prince Louis Rwagasore of the Union pour le progress national (UPRONA), a multi-ethnic party that advocated national unity and independence, won against the Parti Démocrate chrétien (PDC) created by local chiefs with Belgian support. Nationalism threatened the Belgians. Rwagasore was assassinated on 13 October 1961 by a Greek national Jean Kageorgis on behalf of the PDC leadership,[2] depriving Burundi of a leader who encouraged national unity and bridged ethnic divisions. King Mwambutsa ruled Burundi between 1915 and 1966 and tried to bridge Hutu-Tutsi polarization by ensuring equal political representation. In 1965 when he replaced the Tutsi prime minister with Pierre Ngendendumwe, a Hutu and member of the Union for National Progress, Pierre was assassinated by a Tutsi refugee.[3] The King organized a parliamentary election that the Hutu majority won, but he instead chose the Tutsi Leopold Biha to replace Pierre.

Mwambutusa soon went into exile and was replaced by his son Charles Ndizwe, who deposed him and declared himself King Ntare V. The king appointed the politician and soldier Captain Micombero as prime minister in July 1966. In a bloodless coup, Micombero (1966–76) overthrew the king in November 1966 and proclaimed Burundi a republic. He eliminated the Hutu from the army and retrenched Tutsi political and military power, commencing decades of Tutsi-led military dictatorship (1966–93). The Hutu rebelled and massacred the Tutsi in 1972. Under the leadership of Justice Minister Arthemon Simbananiya (a Tutsi), the government initiated a reign of terror during which more than 200,000 Hutus were massacred and others exiled.[4] At the peak of the massacres, Simbananiya admitted “at least we’ll have peace for the next thirty years”.[5] Burundi experienced “another massacre of genocidal proportion” of thousands of Hutu and Tutsi in 1973.[6] Lieutenant Colonel Jean Baptiste Bagaza (1976–87), a Tutsi, overthrew Micombero in a military coup on 1 November 1 1976, declared himself president and introduced constitutional and land reforms. He became the leader of the Union for National Progress (UPRONA) in 1979 and established a one-party dictatorship. Major Pierre Buyoya (a Tutsi) overthrew Bagaza in May 1987 and introduced political reforms aimed at easing ethnic tensions, national unity, and reconciliation. However, he abolished the Constitution and suspended the Legislative Assembly, elected a Hutu prime minister, and encouraged the Hutu to join the army. Burundi was again embroiled in a civil war between the Hutu and Tutsi in August 1988 following an abortive Hutu coup. More Hutus were massacred while others fled to Tanzania and Congo.

Burundi’s first democratic elections in June 1993 were won by Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu from the Front pour la démocratie du Burundi (FRODEBU) against Buyoya, a Tutsi from UPRONA. Ndadaye was sworn in on 10 July after a coup attempt on 3 July. He sought to reconcile ethnic animosity by appointing Tutsis to his cabinet, releasing political prisoners, and improving Hutu living conditions. The changes threatened Tutsi privileges, leading to Ndadaye’s murder on 21 October 1993, plunging Burundi into another round of violence that lasted until 2005.

A power-sharing deal between the UPRONA and FRODEBU was reached in September 1994 only to be rejected by Tutsi extremists. In the ensuing national turmoil, UPRONA terminated the coalition with FRODEBU. Former FRODEBU interior minister Leonard Nyangoma formed a Hutu political party, Counseil National pour la Défense de la Démocratie (CNDD), with an armed wing known as the Forces pour la Défense Démocratique (FDD) that started a civil war in northern Burundi against the Tutsi-dominated army. Tutsi soldiers staged a coup on 25 July 1996 and overthrew the democratically elected President Sylvester Ntibatunganya, reinstated a Tutsi, Pierre Buyoya, and ended constitutional governance. Marauding Tutsi youth armed with machetes and clubs controlled large sections of Bujumbura, Burundi’s capital, in support of the army. With the declaration of the “Regroupment Policy” in 1996, the army herded thousands of Hutu civilians in the northern rural areas into “regroupment camps” or “concentration camps” where they were malnourished, raped, tortured, and sometimes killed. Many never returned. Tutsi fatalities increased when the Hutu rebel groups FDD, Front pour la Libération Nationale (FROLINA), the armed wing of PALIPEHUTU, and the Front Nationale de Libération (FNL) intensified attacks. Government institutions, the president, and the parliament became powerless during the skirmishes and were unable to implement effective policies (Reyntjens, 2000). Since the signing of the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement in 2000, the national government has been in the hands of the main Hutu party FRODEBU and the Tutsi party UPRONA.

In June 2005 the predominantly Hutu rebel movement currently ruling Burundi, CNDD-FDD, won parliamentary elections using the ethnic inclusivity card. In August the same year Nkurunziza was elected president by the two houses of parliament. In 2006 the government signed a ceasefire with FNL rebels, who resumed countrywide attacks in 2007 until another ceasefire was signed in 2008. In 2010 the second post-transition polls were organised against popular demands, the constitution, and the Arusha Accords. Nkurunziza claimed to win the elections which had been boycotted by the opposition parties. Prior to the elections, prospects for fair, peaceful, and violence-free elections were dim. Human rights violations, intimidation, extrajudicial killings, disappearances, torture, rape, beatings, extortion, and other forms of political violence by state agents and the ruling CNDD-FDD’s youth league were reported and remain prevalent today. Due to impunity, lack of political will, weakness, and corruption in the judicial system the majority of perpetrators have never been brought to justice. Survivors and victims’ families remain scared to seek justice. In 2012 the government committed to creating a Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but no progress was made in setting up a Special Tribunal. Many people who lost loved ones, those orphaned by violence, women who suffered sexual assault, people who were disabled by violence, whose property was destroyed, and who sought refuge in other countries continue to long for justice.

UN officials were ordered to leave the country in April 2014 after a UN report warned that the government was arming its youth league prior to the 2015 presidential election. In 2015 the constitutional court ruled that president Nkurunziza could stand for a third term amidst media reports of judges being intimidated, protests, and violence throughout the country. The ruling contradicted Burundi’s 2005 constitution which states that the president is to be elected by universal suffrage and can only serve two terms. Amidst reports of vote rigging, violence, human rights violations, and poor voter turnouts, Nkuruzinza claimed victory in the 2015 presidential elections. In March 2018 Nkurunziza announced a referendum allowing him to remain in office until 2034, after the ruling party bestowed him the title of “eternal supreme guide”; “our elder, our father, our adviser”. Human rights groups and the opposition documented that referendum proceedings and the vote were both fraught with intimidation, threats, killings, rape, torture, detainment, and harassment, forcing many to vote against their will and others to flee the country. Nkurunziza’s rule is characterized by political repression, media censorship, impunity for human rights abuses, and extrajudicial killings by state agents and youth of his party.

Analysing Burundi’s Predicament

Burundi’s conflicts are very complex, rooted as they are in colonial history, identity crises, and mutual demonization between the Hutu and Tutsi. How to come to terms with the past and forge a peaceful and secure future is a daunting task facing Burundians from all walks of life. Since independence political unrest, violence, militarism, and power struggles have characterized public life. This means that Burundians born around or after 1962 have never experienced peace and security. Peace, security, truth, justice, and reconciliation remain a challenge in Burundi’s landscape characterized by militarism, ethnicized politics, persistent human rights abuses, power struggles, and constitutional violations. Burundi ranks among the failed states. The country is deeply riven by an enduring legacy of violence that stems (at least partially) from ethnic cleavages. Life is generally insecure and dangerous. Governing elites manipulate the citizenry, and power is bitterly contested by warring factions. The state has flawed institutions, ineffective education and medical systems, flourishing corruption, abject poverty, and growing rates of criminal violence.[7] The government fails to deliver the political goods of “safety and security; rule of law and transparency; participation and respect for human security [rights and dignity]; sustainable economic opportunity; and human development,”[8] making the population and especially the youth susceptible to joining youth leagues and rebel movements.

The situation is exacerbated by the weakness of state institutions, particularly the judiciary and the legislature, as they are subordinate to patronage and so-called “big man rulership”. Accordingly, the judiciary fails to reinforce the rule of law, curb corruption and impunity, the legislature neglects to uphold constitutionalism, and the army and the police serve the president rather than the citizenry. Those in power run the state like a private business. Evidently, state failure, institutional ineffectiveness, poor governance and leadership reinforce a situation where “core” indigenous elites control and disenfranchise the “periphery”, i.e. the powerless majority. Political posts are avenues to personal aggrandizement, not public service.

Pathways to a Just Reconstruction

As the last 50 years have shown, reconciliation and reconstruction in Burundi will prove challenging. Nevertheless, a set of key tasks can be identified that any effective plan for bringing the country back on track must necessarily take into account:

(1) Revisiting national history and ironing out historical grievances dating back to colonialism

A cursory review of Burundi’s history reveals recurrent cycles of violence and patterns that transcend individual regimes and leaders. The intermittent coups, guerrilla groups, and changes of government characterized by violence and bloodshed have meant that all Burundians born in the 50+ years after independence were exposed to a “culture of violence” and traumatized. The costs of Burundi’s wars unsurprisingly include the loss of human life, economic destruction, violation of human rights, rape, murder, hatred, robbery, and thus a population of soldiers, police, adults and children suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PSTD). Social structures and systems created during the colonial era will require critical re-examination to ensure sustainable peace and avoid relapsing into violence. A different Burundi is almost impossible without addressing the bitter history and fostering individual and collective healing.  

(2) Involving all Burundians and especially women and youth

International, regional, and national interventions must be innovative and comprehensive. Burundians from all walks of life and not just the politicians who are often the orchestrators of violence must be engaged in the reconstruction process. Peoples’ voices at the grassroots level need to be interrogated in conflict analysis, the implementation of justice, and peacebuilding processes. Their opinions, experiences, and perspectives must be heard. Women’s engagement needs to be prioritized given that all of Burundi’s armed conflicts are waged on their bodies, their farmlands, wells, and forests where they gather firewood. To this effect, grassroots women must be empowered economically and educated in leadership and peacebuilding. Failure to educate and empower women is detrimental to the nation since they are the first educators of children on whom its future hinges. Equally, men must be educated about women’s rights to overcome the patriarchal practices that oppress women, including the use of rape as a weapon of war.

 The youth, especially the unemployed and impoverished, endure the brunt of armed conflict. They are usually lured into senseless violence but excluded in peacebuilding processes. Creating a culture of peace is impossible without their education in and outside school and involvement in peacebuilding processes. Thus, peace education needs to become part of the education curriculum. Beyond the classroom, “music, dance, and drama” (MDD), storytelling, and the media ought to be utilized to educate those who do not attend school.

(3) Creating and strengthening credible democratic institutions and the rule of law

Burundi needs institutions that reflect the country’s political and ethnic diversity and serve all citizens equally. The onus is on all Burundians—in other words, people’s power needs to prevail over the power of the ruling elite. Democracy based on Burundian traditional leadership models where social classes and ethnic groups were represented in decision-making, coupled with democratic institutions that follow the rule of law and not the dictates of those in power, is crucial to transforming the country’s political landscape and building sustainable peace. The military and police must be at the service of the people and not the ruler. In the absence of institutions and behaviours that support the rule of law where the judiciary is controlled by the ruler, the vacuum must be filled before envisaging sustainable peace. Restoring the rule of law and justice in all spheres of society is a sine qua non for peace, security, and development in Burundi. Transitioning from violence, conflicts, and national polarization will require not only the political will of those in leadership positions but the overhauling of state systems to make the rule of law irreversible. The modus operandi in forming governments under fear of street violence and the aegis of the army illustrated the political impasse that faced (and continues to face) Burundi, and the rift between the government and the needs of the majority. Key issues include: implementing genuine and inclusive dialogue as envisioned by the Arusha Accords; reforming the political system through justice, the rule of law, democracy, good governance, and respect for human rights; applying equality before the law; decentralizing the judiciary and respect for freedom of expression; and reinforcing ethical and civic conduct by the defence and security forces.

(4) Curbing impunity and refraining from simplistic “forgiveness”

A serious home-grown search for sustainable peace, justice, truth, reconciliation, security and development is urgently needed. Meaningful transition “has to be pursued through a combination of punitive measures and diplomacy”[9] to curb impunity and refrain from “simplistic” forgiveness. For example, the kind of political forgiveness advocated for in Desmond Tutu’s book No Future Without Forgiveness is admirable and would be ideal for Burundi. However, it must not be misunderstood: authentic truth and reconciliation post-conflict requires addressing the root causes embedded in systemic, structural, socio-political and socio-economic injustices. Tutu acknowledged that without establishing accountability, “blanket amnesty” is unrealistic:

… none of us possess a kind of fiat by which we can say, “Let the bygones be bygones” and hey presto, they then become bygones … the past far from disappearing or lying down and being quiet, has an embarrassing and persistent way of returning and haunting unless it has been dealt with adequately. Unless we look the beast in the eye, we find it has an uncanny habit of returning to hold us hostage.[10]

Generations will suffer unimaginable consequences of hatred and all forms of violence unless authentic transitional justice is implemented.

(5) Integrating indigenous approaches

Engaging Burundian wisdom and philosophy, especially the Ubushingatahe—values of justice, truthfulness, faithfulness, righteousness, transparency, compassion, self-control, responsibility, hospitality, kindness and tolerance—is crucial. For example, the Bashingantahe councils with the inclusion of women and communal rituals for reconciliation with respectful acknowledgement of the harm caused to survivors and reintegration of offenders into society remains vital. The legislative assembly would always benefit from the wisdom of the Bashingantahe councils.

(6) Democratic leadership and governance

Political leaders have contributed to Burundi’s skirmishes, but they remain pivotal in state reconstruction. Ethical, patriotic, and committed leadership is urgently needed to spearhead national reconciliation, unity, security, and economic development for all. For this to happen, leaders require a paradigm shift concerning their perceptions of leadership and power from a means to personal aggrandizement to public service.


This article has explored Burundi’s historical and present crisis, briefly analysing the turbulent landscape and underscoring some of the elements that must be addressed in the reconstruction process. The longue durée of violence requires the moral imagination for all Burundians to realize they are in a web of relationships and national destiny that includes both their enemies as well as future generations. They will all survive and thrive only when they unite, bound together by circumstances and history, to overcome the morass of ethnic and political violence towards a peaceful, secure, and developed society. Where the leaders fail to work together, people power must prevail. Unless Burundians learn to live together as brothers and sisters they will continue to die together as fools, well aware that it might take longer than the 56 years since independence for the pernicious effect of violence to be transformed.

Namakula E. Mayanja, PhD is a scholar and instructor in peace and conflict studies at the University of Manitoba and the University of Winnipeg. She is an experienced researcher in Africa’s Great Lakes Region. Her research interests include Africa’s leadership, security, peacekeeping, peacebuilding, non-state armed groups, and natural resource wars.

[1] Johan Pottier, Re-imagining Rwanda: Conflict, Survival and Disinformation in the Late Twentieth Century, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004.

[2] Rene Lemarchand, Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996.

[3] “Burundi Premier Assassination by tribesman”, St. Petersburg Times, 16 January 1965.

[4] C. Villa-Vicencio, P. Nantulya and T. Savage, Building Nations: Transitional Justice in the African Great Lakes Region, Cape Town Instutute for Justice and Reconciliation, 2005.

[5] R. Lemarchand, The Dynamics of Violence in Central Africa, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2009, p. 138.

[6] G. Mwakikagile, Civil Wars in Rwanda and Burundi: Conflict Resolution in Africa, Pretoria: New Africa Press, 2013, p. 72.

[7] R.I. Rotberg, “The failure and collapse of nation-states: Breakdowns, prevention, and repair”, When States Fail: Causes and Consequences, edited by R.I. Rotberg, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2010, pp. 1–50.

[8] R.I. Rotberg, Africa Emerges: Consummate Challenges, Abundant Opportunities, Cambridge: Polity Press, 2013, p. 147.

[9] G. Mwakikagile, Burundi: The Hutu and the Tutsi: Cauldron of Conflict and Quest for Dynamic Compromise, Dar es Salaam: New Africa Press, 2012, pp. 92–3.

[10] Desmond Tutu, No Future Without Forgiveness, New York: Doubleday, 2000, p. 28.