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This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Burundi: Crisis Demands World Involvement
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Burundi: Crisis Demands World Involvement
Date Distributed (ymd): 950404


April, 1995

Burundi, gripped by a resurgence of ethnic fighting since the
last week of March, may be on the brink of an explosion.
Extremists pose a serious threat to the power-sharing
agreement reached last September between the majority party,
which is predominantly Hutu, and the opposition, which is
predominantly Tutsi.  Although the parallel with Rwanda is not
exact, there is danger that the violence in Burundi could
escalate into the kind of mass slaughter that claimed half a
million lives in Rwanda last year.

Burundi has had ethnic violence in the past.  As many as
50,000 to 100,000 people died in the last major outbreak, in
1993, with little effective reaction from the international

Now many outside parties are calling for preventive action to
avert a new tragedy.  The Organization of African Unity, the
United Nations, and various other governments and
nongovernmental organizations have been actively trying to
encourage moderation and discourage extremist factions.  This
involvement must continue and receive strong support from
major world leaders and public opinion if there is to be any
hope of staving off a downward spiral of violence and

Ethnic Polarization

Burundi is about the size of the state of Maryland.  It is
densely populated, although its population of an estimated 6
million is about one million less than Rwanda's (including
refugees).  It depends primarily on agricultural exports,
mainly coffee.

For most of the country's history, ethnic stratification in
Burundi was less rigid than in neighboring Rwanda.  Before the
colonial conquest Burundi had five ethnic groups: the Hutu,
who were farmers; the Tutsi, a cattle-raising people; the
Hima; the Baganwa; and the Twa.

The Tutsi and the Hutu speak the same language and share the
same culture.  Intermarriage has been common, and a family
could move from one group to the other over generations as it
acquired or lost cattle.  But the Belgian colonial rulers made
this caste-like division into a kind of apartheid, requiring
ethnic identity cards and discriminating in favor of Tutsi.
They regarded the Hima and Baganwa as subgroups of Tutsi,
furthering the polarization of the society into two major
groups.  This set the scene for repeated ethnic conflict
following independence in 1962.  Today Burundi's ethnic
composition is similar to that of Rwanda: Hutu make up 85% of
the population, Tutsi are 14%, and the remaining 1% are Twa.

Unlike Rwanda, where predominantly Hutu governments ruled
after independence while large numbers of Tutsi fled to exile,
Burundi governments until recently were dominated by the Tutsi
minority.  Although some Hutu played a limited role in
government immediately after independence, most were purged
from power by subsequent regimes, both military and civilian.

Successive Hutu revolts, in 1965, 1972, 1988 and 1991, were
accompanied by indiscriminate violence on both sides.  But the
greatest carnage came in 1972 in genocidal action by the
Tutsi-dominated army against Hutus.  As many as 100,000 were
killed in the space of a few months.

Efforts Toward Power-Sharing

Until recently, the Tutsi-dominated Union for National
Progress (UPRONA) was the only political party that had ever
held power.  President Pierre Buyoya, who took power in a coup
in 1987, moved gradually to bring more Hutus into his
government, as well as into the army.  In 1992 he introduced
a multi-party constitution, opening up political competition.
This paved the way for the exiled Front for Democracy in
Burundi (FRODEBU), the major party supported by Hutus, to
operate legally.  Although Buyoya won respect for his
political opening, he lost to the FRODEBU presidential
candidate, Melchior Ndadaye, in elections held peacefully in
June 1993.  In the legislative elections, FRODEBU won 65 seats
to UPRONA's 16.

President Buyoya accepted his defeat with good grace, and
handed over the reins of government to his successor.  But
tension between the Tutsi-dominated army and political
establishment and the incoming administration was high.  Tutsi
extremists opposed any concessions to the newcomers, while
Hutu extremists pushed for a rapid purge of Tutsi from
positions of power.

President Ndadaye, the first Hutu to become head of state in
Burundi, adopted a gradualist position.  He appointed Sylvie
Kinigi, an ethnic Tutsi and member of UPRONA, as prime
minister, and conceded 40% of ministerial posts to the
opposition.  But he had to confront extremists within his own
party who opposed these concessions.  And he had in practice
to share power with the military establishment, which was set
against reforms that would dilute their power by bringing in
new officers and opening up the army to greater participation
by Hutus.

Tension and unrest were serious but not uncontrollable until
October 1993, when President Ndadaye and several of his
ministers were killed in an abortive coup by younger officers.
In circumstances which are still unclear, the coup was
suppressed, with leading officers remaining loyal to the
government.  But the top military leadership apparently did
not make a serious effort to protect the president.  Other
government officials only survived by taking refuge in foreign

Those killed in the coup attempt included the president and
vice-president of the national assembly, who under the
constitution would have succeeded the president.  While the
government continued in office, it was not until early 1994
that a new president and prime minister were chosen.  FRODEBU
leader Cyprien Ntaryamira, formerly minister of agriculture,
became president, while an UPRONA figure, Anatole Kanyenkiko,
became prime minister.  As under Ndadaye, the opposition was
given 40% of the ministerial seats.

1993 Massacres

In the aftermath of the coup, however, a series of massacres
involving supporters of both sides took the lives of between
50,000 and 100,000 people.  In many parts of the country,
Hutus, fearing mass slaughter like that of 1972, took
preemptive action against Tutsis.  The army in turn massacred
Hutus.  An International Commission on Human Rights in
Burundi, which carried out an investigation in mid-1994,
concluded that "both Hutu and Tutsi used rumor and myth to
incite the killings and to justify the slaughter."

In contrast to the situation in Rwanda in April-June 1994--
when the massacres were overwhelmingly the responsibility of
centrally organized extremist Hutu forces--the killings in
Burundi were relatively dispersed.  Nor were they apparently
the result of an organized plan, as they had been in Rwanda.
But the military was clearly responsible for initiating
violence as well as for failing to maintain order.  As many as
700,000 Burundians fled to neighboring countries, and as many
as 1.3 million were displaced from their homes inside the

Despite the tense situation and continued smaller clashes,
Burundi was able to continue with a coalition government and
to avoid a new general explosion of violence.  But in April
1994 the new president, Cyprien Ntaryamira, died in the same
plane crash as Rwandan President Habyarimana.  Government and
army officials reassured the country that the crash was
related to Rwanda's conflict, not Burundi's, and the president
of the national assembly, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, quickly
took office as interim president.  After considerable
controversy he was elected president in September 1994.  A
convention signed by the two large parties and a number of
smaller parties agreed on a continued coalition, with the
opposition providing the prime minister, 45% of the ministers,
and half of a new National Security Council.

The Current Situation

Extremists on both sides have continued trying to undermine
the coalition government.  Ethnic tensions are high, and
killings have occurred in many areas of the country.  In late
March fighting broke out in the capital, Bujumbura, after the
assassination of the energy minister by Tutsi extremists and
the killings of three Belgians and two Burundian soldiers by
Hutu gunmen a week later.  In retaliation for the latter
killings, Tutsi soldiers and militiamen attacked neighborhoods
in the capital on March 25-26, prompting the flight of at
least 25,000 people toward bordering countries.  In addition,
thousands of Rwandan Hutu refugees fled from camps in northern
Burundi, although that exodus appears to have since halted.

Moderate forces within Burundi have tried valiantly to avert
a recurrence of the 1993 killings.  They have had the help of
a small Organization of African Unity peacekeeping force
consisting of 46 military observers.  The United Nations
secretary general has sent a special representative, diplomat
Ahmedou Ould Abdallah, who has won praise for his mediating
role.  The U.N. Security Council has repeatedly expressed its
concern that extremist violence be discouraged, and has called
for the coup and massacres of 1993 to be investigated by a
joint international/Burundian judicial process.

A Security Council mission to Burundi in February included
representatives of Nigeria, China, the Czech Republic,
Germany, Honduras, Indonesia, and the United States.  They
reported that "the political and security situation remains
precarious and is potentially explosive.  Extremist elements,
both Tutsi and Hutu, both within the coalition government and
outside it, have for their own reasons not accepted the
power-sharing arrangements contained in the Convention.  These
extremists have usurped the political initiative, at the
expense of the moderate elements who constitute the majority
of the population and have been silenced through threat and

The mission added that "the culture of impunity constitutes a
fundamental problem."  An international inquiry into the
events of 1993, already proposed by the government, is urgent,
as is international aid for building an impartial judicial
system and civilian police.

International agencies, key foreign governments, and
nongovernmental organizations have all called for continuing
international involvement to prevent a new tragedy in Burundi.
Meeting in February in London, representatives of governments,
NGOs and multilateral bodies adopted a common action plan for
providing international support for moderation and dialogue
inside Burundi.
But the failure of the international community to take timely
preventive action to avert the genocide in Rwanda continues to
haunt the Burundi situation.  The chances that preventive
diplomacy will succeed this time depend on continued strong
support from national governments and international public

For more information contact: International Alert, 1 Glyn St.,
London SE11 5HT, United Kingdom. Tel: 44-71-793-8383. Fax:
44-71-793-7975. E-mail:


Contact key members of the Administration.  Encourage them to
continue to support coordinated high-level international
involvement in preventive diplomacy in Burundi, through
bilateral U.S. efforts and through the United Nations and the
Organization of African Unity.  Ask for continued visits and
expressions of concern from high-level delegations, as well as
increased international presence to serve as a deterrent to
escalation of violence.

Send letters to:

Secretary of State Warren Christopher
U.S. Department of State
Washington, DC 20520
Fax: (202) 647-6434

Mr. Anthony Lake
National Security Advisor
The White House
Washington, DC 20500
Fax: (202) 456-2883

Send copies of your letter to:

Sen. Nancy Kassebaum
Chair, Africa Subcommittee
U.S. Senate
Washington, DC 20510
Phone: (202) 224-4774
Fax: (202) 224-3514

Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen
Chair, Africa Subcommittee
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515
Phone: (202) 225-3931
Fax: (202) 225-5620

This material is made available by the Washington
Office on Africa (WOA).  WOA is a not-for-profit
church, trade union and civil rights group supported
organization that works with Congress on Africa-related


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