Making Sense of the Burundi Crisis

By Eric Cherry

Rev. Fulgence Ndagijimana, founder and minister of the Unitarian Church in Burundi, has prepared an article that will help interested people understand the context and background of the current situation You are welcome to share this article widely. Donate online to support Burundi Unitarians. “But as for me and my people, we will work for lasting peace”  Burundi was a rather organized kingdom until the late 1800s when the Germans came to colonize the country. Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa lived side by side under the leadership of a king. The Germans didn’t stay long as they had to leave the country due to the events of WWI. Belgians took over and ruled the kingdom, operating under the widespread divide et impera principle. They mostly favored the Tutsi, who they compared to an aristocracy when they arrived; this created resentment in the Hutu population which represents 85% of the population. The struggle for independence was fought by both Tutsi and Hutu under the leadership of the Prince Louis Rwagasore, but immediately after the independence, on July 1st 1962, tensions arose. At independence, Burundi became a constitutional monarchy. The prince was killed in 1961. Afterwards, the government included both Tutsi and Hutu with a Hutu prime minister. The prime minister was killed by a Tutsi gunman and the king appointed a Tutsi prime minister. The Hutu were angry that they were not represented enough in the government and attempted a coup in 1965 against the King. The 34 officers responsible for the coup were executed and this led the king to flee the kingdom, leaving behind his 18 year old son. In July 1966, the prince deposed his absent father and became Burundi’s new king. In November, the Tutsi prime minister deposed the young king and Burundi became a republic with Michel Micombero as President. The tensions didn’t stop, on the contrary. In 1972, there were uprisings in some areas of the country, especially in the southern and the central provinces. Tutsi families were killed and others were threatened. The government responded with a brutal repression; many Hutu were killed and almost all the educated Hutu were killed or had to flee the country, mostly towards Tanzania. My brother once told me that his Hutu elementary school teacher, who was liked by everyone, was taken from the classroom while teaching! Thousands of Hutu fled the country and the government distributed or sold their houses to Tutsi, especially those in the administration. A history of coup d’Etat and violence Beginning with the coup in 1966, there was coup d’état roughly every 10 years. The second one was in 1976, led by Jean Baptiste Bagaza who continued the same policies as his predecessor when it came to power sharing; Tutsi had the lion’s share. In education, it was close to impossible for a Hutu to move from primary to secondary school; good schools were concentrated in Bujumbura, the provincial towns, and the southern provinces dominated by Tutsi. The third military coup in 1987 brought a shift in perspective vis-à-vis the ethnic question. Education was now open to everyone, and Hutu youth flooded the education system from secondary to university. There was open discussion about the Hutu and Tutsi issues and this led to a Unity Charter in 1992: Hutu and Tutsi accepted through referendum that they would live together, have equal access to resources, and call refugees to return home. I want to clarify that the Tutsi, still in the minority, held power/government positions under the 1st and the 2nd republic. The democratic wind of the 1990s was blowing over Africa and hovering over Burundi as well. There was a clear openness in the political space and many refugees started to come back home; educated Hutu came to take part in the elections. Multi-party democracy was accepted and elections were organized in 1993. As expected, a Hutu won the election because of the rule of the numbers .The Tutsi were frightened: they didn’t know what to expect and feared vengeance, killing, and conflict over land ownership after years of not so good governance. The newly elected president was killed by the Tutsi dominated army only after 3 months in office. After the death of the president, the Hutu in many villages around the country killed their Tutsi neighbors; 50,000 Tutsi were killed in only a few days. The Hutu elite were shocked: some stayed and continued the political struggle, and some went on to start a rebel movement. There was a transitional government led by the then speaker of the parliament. There was fighting between the army and the rebel movement and chaos spread around the country. The rebel movement was to fight the Tutsi dominated army that was allegedly responsible of killing the Hutu president. No independent investigation has been done to date. In 1996, another coup d’état was carried out by the president responsible of the 1987 coup, Pierre Buyoya, who had made great contributions towards Hutu and Tutsi living together. He deposed the former speaker of the parliament. This was a decisive moment in our history. The new president, President Buyoya Pierre, with the help of the respected former Tanzanian president, Mwalimu Nyerere, US president Jimmy Carter, and Nelson Mandela, started peace talks between all the active forces in the country: the political parties from sides (Hutu and Tutsi), religious leaders, and civil society organizations, rebel groups. After 4 years of negotiations, Tutsi and Hutu reached an agreement about the future. A final document, called “Arusha Peace Deal for Peace and Reconciliation,” was signed by over 20 interest groups. This peace deal paved the way for a new way of looking at one another, a way of solving problems, and a way of sharing resources and power. The Arusha deal says that each of the two major ethnic groups must make up 50% of the army, all the appointed positions from the administration must be filled 40% Tutsi and 60% Hutu, and all the political parties with more than 4% of votes during general elections have to be part of the government. The same Arusha peace deal says that NO president in Burundi can run for more than 10 years or two terms. Arusha gave birth to the current constitution, which also stipulates term limits for the president (two five-year terms are permitted), as well as the way presidents are elected. The controversy is about how the president got elected for his first term, not by the people directly but by the MPs. He doesn’t want to count that term as a “Term”.  And here is the key to understanding the current situation. The ruling party decided that the current president can run for a third term, in violation of the Arusha peace deal and the constitution that stipulates 2 terms, no more. People were afraid that if the president is allowed to run, the country will face the kind of injustice that people suffered pre-2000, before Arusha; there is no peace without justice. People think that the demons of 50 years ago are coming back to haunt them. Almost every family in Burundi lost some one during the recent civil war and during different repressions by different regimes, and many had to flee either their home or the country. The demonstrators and now the people contesting the regime in Bujumbura are fighting against more than the 3rd term; they are demonstrating on behalf of lasting peace and true justice and stability in the country. This was the first time in Burundi’s history when Burundians from different political parties and from all ethnic groups were meeting on the streets with one goal: to save peace by nurturing justice. The foundation, on which the country stood for the last 15 years, since Arusha was signed, is being threatened. This is the reason why voices from within the country (including political parties, civil society organizations, churches) and from outside the country (including Belgium, with which we have strong ties for obvious reasons as a former colonial power, the European Union, the USA, the UN Secretary General and Security Council) are united in calling for the president not to run for a third 5-year term. He used the legal system that he controls to validate his term and held elections contested by the opposition and the international community. A chance for peace was missed and … The president persisted and refused to step aside as stipulated by the constitution and the Arusha deal. As I write this note, over 500 people have been killed( some unofficial figures talk about 1000), 6000 are in jail and 220,000 fled the country for their safety and are in Rwanda, DR Congo, Tanzania and Uganda and other places. The action of police and the ruling party youth wing have been bloody towards those opposing the status quo. Are the Ethnic demons back with the current crisis? The people who are calling for calm are from all ethnic groups (Hutu and Twa) and this can be seen within the victims of the police atrocities, people in jail and those in refugee camps in different neighboring countries. The struggle to protect the Arusha peace deal and the current constitution is also done through a platform “ CENARED” (Le Conseil National pour le respect de l'Accord d'Arusha pour la Paix et la Réconciliation au Burundi et la Restauration d'un Etat de Droit.) which is led by Hutu and has Tutsi members. The ethnic may be brought back by a ruling party rhetoric calling the struggle an attempt by Tutsi leaders to come back to power, but it is clearly very hard to convince that the struggle is a one ethnic group show.  A Logic of war Over the recent decades, Burundi, as a country is unfortunately developing a culture of violence. We are losing the long held and respected tradition of wise men bringing parties together and help find an amicable solution to problems. Burundi and particularly Bujumbura (Capital City) has become a battle ground between the police and the young armed people. The capital city has become also a killing ground for people suspected to be sympathetic to the people fighting the police by not giving information about them. This logic and vicious circle need to be reversed by a logic of peace. The need for a Logic of peace It is clear that the sustainable path to peace is dialogue between people and groups who want to build a peaceful Burundi where there is room for everyone, human rights are respected and positive values promoted. Should we include the people responsible for wrong doing both now and in the past? That is the question the people in peace talks recently inaugurated in Uganda and due to continue in Arusha, Tanzania will have to respond. The Unitarian Church of Burundi has been playing and wants to play a role in this logic. The church is committed to continue the work begun for several years now of promoting the values of tolerance and diversity, to work on the root causes of the divisions in Burundi that have been exclusion and using violence as a means to solve problems. We want to influence a paradigm change in the way problems are looked at and people live together and share their common destiny. Our values may be not appealing for the immediate interests of the ruling class but we will continue to uphold and promote them. And despite the difficult conditions, we are committed to keep our doors and our hearts open. Is there any hope? I recall the song by Carolyn Mcdade “… And I will bring you hope when hope is hard to find ….a rose in the winter time”. Looking at the situation; social, economic, ethical,….it is really to find hope. But, Hope is permitted because there are people in Burundi who refuse the status quo, who want change and who, in many small ways, are working for it to happen. I know of lawyers who risk their lives defending people unfairly arrested and jailed, I see people who visit prisoners and offer a presence, I am aware of nurses and doctors who go to their work every day even when roads are blocked and the possibility of being arrested and killed is real. All these are brave signs of resistance to the status quo and they will eventually bring peace and harmony. Hope is permitted because Burundians are not alone in this struggle. We are part of the human family. Individuals and institutions around the world are not only wishing but working to make this happen. How many letters have been written, how many prayers have been said, how many petitions have been sent, how much money has been raised so that things change for the better? Hope is permitted because organizations at regional, continental and global level have been calling both parties to find a solution and for the government to play its role. Pressures have mounted upon the government for accountability and refrain. Things may look gloomy and indeed they are, some people may be brutal and they really are. But there are thousands others working for change in many different ways and the mystery will slowly unveil one day. As for me and my congregation, we will work to build lasting peace. Prepared by Rev. Ndagijimana Fulgence Further donations will be need to the meet the ongoing needs of Burundians in exile. Please continue to support the ICUU Burundi Appeal. You can donate online via credit card or PayPal.

About the Author

Eric Cherry

Eric was the Director of the UUA’s International Office since August 2007. Prior to this Eric served for 12 years as a parish minister with UU congregations in Burlington, Iowa and N. Easton, Massachusetts. Eric has long been involved in the UU Partner Church movement, serving as the English...


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