In an interview with the BBC on March 21, a spokesman for then Burundian president Pierre Nkurunziza declared, in reference to the COVID-19 pandemic, “Burundi is an exception among the other nations, because it is a country which has put God first, a God who keeps and protects it from all misfortune.” Ten days later, the authorities confirmed the first two cases of disease had been diagnosed in the small Great Lakes country. Nonetheless, the government persisted in treating the pandemic with significantly less urgency than any of its neighbors, a gamble that would cost the life of its president on June 8.
Burundi now finds itself in a precarious position. After general and presidential elections held in May, ruling party candidate Évariste Ndayishimiye was declared the winner. But even before the results were formally announced, the main opposition party filed a case at the constitutional court, challenging the outcome.
The ruling CNDD-FDD has isolated Burundi from the international stage, withdrawing from the International Criminal Court in 2017 after the latter began to investigate government-sanctioned atrocities committed against civilians in the wake of the political crisis that erupted when Nkurunziza announced in 2015 he would be running for a third presidential term. Two years later, the government forcibly closed down the local United Nations human rights office.
The GDP per capita in Burundi remains one of the lowest both in Africa and the world, with the national economy still heavily dependent on remittances and foreign aid. Agriculture, notably the coffee trade, remains a principal component of Burundian economic life, but the area of arable land is shrinking as the population continues to grow. Hundreds of thousands of Burundians still reside either in refugee camps or remain internally displaced, living reminders of the devastation wrought by the civil war that raged from 1993 to 2003.
For Burundians and international observers, the country’s current position is a time bomb. Given the country’s historical pattern of successive military takeovers, fears of yet another coup d’état are not unfounded. Understanding how Burundi has arrived at this particular precipice requires a revisit of its tumultuous history and the political conflicts that continue to inform its present volatility. Whichever direction Burundi takes, it is guaranteed to have reverberations throughout the region.
Pre-Independence Politics of Burundi
Precolonial Burundi’s social hierarchy was not too dissimilar from that of its neighbor, Rwanda. It was a feudal system with a king, or mwami, at the top, who was chosen from the aristocratic class of Banyaruguru Tutsi. They ruled over Hima Tutsis—who were mainly pastoralists—and Hutus. The Hutus served in various roles, many of them as local chiefs and a not insignificant number were elevated to influential roles in the royal administration. Local communities also elected bashingantahe, wise elders who served as judges and mediators for petty disputes, many of whom were drawn from the Hutu.
Wars during this era did not pitch combatants against one another based on their Tutsi or Hutu status. The first such conflict of this kind would not appear until 1959 during the Rwandan Revolution. This is primarily due to the fact that “Hutu” and “Tutsi” function as general descriptors of social position and were not the primary means by which Burundians or even Rwandans would identify themselves. Clan affiliation and village belonging were often much more important markers of identity, along with religious denomination once Christianity arrived in the region.
In 1893, the Kingdom of Burundi was conquered by the German Empire and incorporated into the German East Africa colony alongside modern-day Rwanda and Tanzania. At the conclusion of World War I, Germany lost all of its African possessions, which were divvied up between the Allied powers. Tanzania was ceded to Great Britain, and Rwanda and Burundi were placed under the Belgian Mandate.
Rwanda and Burundi were jointly administered from present-day Bujumbura and would only separate upon independence in 1962. Four years prior, Prince Louis Rwagasore formed the Union pour le Progrés National (UPRONA), a genuine multi-ethnic political party focused primarily on achieving independence and rectifying the ethnically based divide-and-conquer governance that defined Belgian colonial rule. In response, Belgian colonial authorities facilitated the creation of the Parti Démocratique-Chrétien (PDC) with the help of a rival faction of the royal family. UPRONA would go on to win more than 80 percent of the vote in Burundi’s first parliamentary elections held on September 8, 1961.
Though Rwagasore lived to see his homeland liberated from European occupation, he would have little time to bask in this victory.
Rwagasore Assassination and Rwandan Revolution
On October 13, 1961, Rwagasore was assassinated by Greek national Jean Kageorgis, aided by two members of the PDC at the behest of the party’s founding members. Though no formal investigation was conducted, it is widely suspected that Belgian colonial officials, including Regent Roberto Régnier, either endorsed or directly supported the assassination.
All of this occurred against the backdrop of the Rwandan Revolution. Lasting from 1959 to 1961, the revolt resulted in the dissolution of the Rwandan monarchy, the political exclusion of Tutsi leadership, the ascension of Hutu Grégoire Kayibanda as president, and the declaration of Rwanda as an autonomous republic in 1961. Thousands of Tutsi were killed in the course of the conflict—victims of the racist anti-Tutsi “rubanda nyamwinshi” ideology, and tens of thousands more fled to neighboring countries, including Burundi.
The Rwandan Revolution is commonly thought of as the beginnings of inter-ethnic violence in the region, but in truth it was more a decolonization struggle that pitted Tutsi leadership against a growing Hutu nationalist movement, which was demanding both independence and greater political say in their country’s future. Nonetheless, an ethnic dimension certainly took root, the fatal results of which engendered heightened tensions among Burundi’s own Hutu and Tutsi populations.
Rwandan Ethnonationalism Seeps Into Burundi Body Politic
Said tensions began to simmer in Burundi’s 1965 parliamentary elections. More than two-thirds of the legislature and cabinet positions ended up in the hands of Hutu politicians. In order to placate growing Tutsi discontentment, King Mwambutsa IV appointed Prince Léopold Biha, a Tutsi, as prime minister. Several months later, a coup d’état was initiated by Hutu gendarmerie, dissatisfied with what they saw as Tutsi favoritism within the monarchy. Colonel Michel Micombero, a Tutsi from the Hima clan, commanded the military response that put down the attempted coup along with instigating indiscriminate and brutal revenge killings against Hutu civilians.
Shortly after the coup was thwarted, Col. Micombero was offered a ministerial position in the government. Several months later, he overthrew King Ntare V in a bloodless coup and declared himself president of the First Republic. UPRONA became the only legal political party under Micombero’s rule, but was nothing more than a tool of the military hierarchy. The Burundian military’s officer corps was purged of virtually every Hutu officer and replaced with Hima Tutsi. Micombero’s presidency was marked by excessive bloodshed and remorseless persecution of Burundi’s Hutu. Fed up with the oppression, a Hutu uprising sprung up in the western Imbo region in 1972.
Once again, Micombero led the military in its crackdown of the revolt. Just like in 1966, the suppression gave way to anti-Hutu pogroms, although this time all educated Hutu, down to high school students, were specifically targeted. About 200,000 Hutu were slaughtered in what survivors refer to as the “Ikiza,” or catastrophe. As French historian Gérard Prunier wrote for Le Monde Diplomatique, “The Ikiza introduced a Burundian reaction to the Rwandan virus, an ethnic essentialism in which the opposing group is perceived as an incarnation of evil to be physically destroyed. But this brutality is reactive and much less rooted in the collective consciousness than in Rwanda.”
Coups and Reforms
Micombero would be overthrown by another Hima Tutsi, Colonel Jean-Baptiste Bagaza, in 1976. Though still maintaining the one-party rule of his predecessor, Bagaza was significantly less extremist in his attitude towards the Hutu, sparing them from the same degree of deliberate massacres that characterized Micombero’s tenure. The trade-off for this relative bout of peace was the near total exclusion of Hutu from politics and civic life in Burundi. By 1985, only seventeen out of sixty-five MPs, four out of twenty cabinet ministers, and two out of the fifty-two members of UPRONA’s Central Committee were Hutu. Every senior command position in the military was Tutsi, two-thirds of whom came from Bururi province. Furthermore, Hutu made up only 10 percent of students and 20 percent of faculty at the National University, and 89 percent of senior corporate management was Tutsi.
Bagaza, too, would be replaced in a bloodless coup orchestrated by Major Pierre Buyoya, yet another Hima Tutsi. In 1988, a year after the coup, Hutu militias organized by PALIPEHUTU (Parti pour la Libération du Peuple Hutu, a secretive movement that first emerged in 1972 in Tanzanian refugee camps) killed several hundred Tutsi in Burundi’s northern provinces. The military reprisal was swift and severe: several thousand Hutu were killed, prompting tens of thousands more to flee the country. International condemnation, notably from France, pressured Buyoya to introduce liberalizing reforms.
A twenty-four-member National Commission to Study the Question of National Unity, half Tutsi and half Hutu, was created by Buyoya, resulting in the drafting and ratification of a Charter of National Unity. Hutu were appointed to important positions, including prime minister, though Buyoya was careful to maintain Tutsi presence in crucial positions such as that of minister of interior, minister of defense, and minister of justice, along with retaining Tutsi dominance of the police and military. Press restrictions were lifted, leading to a proliferation of publications representing the whole range of political views in Burundi, including the more aggressively racist and militant ones.
From a Brief Glimmer of Hope to Civil War
The most crucial of Buyoya’s reforms was the reintroduction of multi-party elections. Burundi’s first genuinely free elections since 1965 were held on June 1, 1993 and saw Melchior Ndadaye of the Front pour la Démocratie au Burundi (FRODEBU) win with just under 65 percent of the vote. Replicating the ethnic unity approach of his predecessor, President Ndadaye, himself a Hutu and survivor of the Ikiza, appointed Tutsi to several cabinet positions, including that of prime minister. Forty percent of cabinet ministers were drawn from the other parties in the legislature, but FRODEBU became the dominant party at the lower level, from provincial governorships on down to the local communes.
FRODEBU’s rapid growth is thought to be one of the motivating factors in the attempted coup of October 13, 1993, which ended in the tragic murder of President Ndadaye and the president and vice-president of the National Assembly. The all-Tutsi military feared that the growing political influence of the Hutu would eventually find its way into the army, the last vestige of defense for Tutsi against militant Hutu guerrillas.
Whatever the case, Ndadaye’s assassination was the final push that sent Burundi into an inevitable downward spiral towards civil war. Deadly retribution against Tutsi followed almost immediately, and is believed to have been orchestrated by FRODEBU partisans. Citing Prunier once again, “This resulted in a triple political struggle in the months following the failed coup: the Tutsi-dominated army kept undermining the still FRODEBU-dominated civilian government; Tutsi civil society extremists who were bent on bringing down what they saw as a génocidaire government kept organizing strikes and demonstrations; and Hutu extremists who considered Hutu moderates still in the government as ‘stooges’ took up arms against it.”
Hutu militias began to organize under existing organs like PALIPEHUTU, formed their own splinter groups, or established entirely new ones. The Tutsi created their own militias as well, some linked to political parties and others more locally based in Tutsi-majority villages and towns. One of the most significant of these new militias would be the Forces de Défense de la Démocratie (FDD), the armed wing of the Conseil National de Défense de la Démocratie (CNDD), a political-movement-in-exile founded by former minister of interior Léonard Nyangoma.
Attacks between militias continued to escalate following Ndadaye’s death, but it never developed into a typical civil war with clearly demarcated frontlines or actionable objectives. All the Hutu militias agreed on the desire to overthrow the remaining government and (save for the CNDD) wished to ethnically cleanse Burundi of its Tutsi population, but this was the extent of any concrete goal.
When President Cyprien Ntaryamira died in the same plane crash that killed Rwandan president Juvénal Habyarimana on April 6, 1994, there was no explosion in violence as was observed in Rwanda. This owed to the fact that, despite appearances, there were still enough moderates within the political parties to reel in escalating tensions and who could hash out political differences while the more radical elements of their respective parties postured. Also, contrary to shared fears, there was no plan for any kind of systematic genocide nor logistical infrastructure in place to carry one out. Daily violence tragically became normalized.
An attempt was made to address the violence in 1994 under Prime Minister Anatole Kanyenkiko, a Tutsi member of UPRONA. Kanyenkiko recognized that the political disputes in Burundi tied back into its patronage system, so he figured a power-sharing agreement distributed along the relative power of each party would be the exit out of protracted insecurity. Such an agreement was signed on September 14, 1994 yet was doomed to fail before the ink was dry.
Tutsi extremists began engaging in what Professor Filip Reyntjens described as a “creeping coup.” They organized strikes, used the Tutsi-dominated courts to judicially obstruct where they could, slandered FRODEBU in the press, and used guerrilla tactics to obstruct Hutu appointments. Moderate Hutu politicians, for their part, did little to stop the extremist Hutu militias from carrying out attacks and revenge killings. Facing increasing pressure from UPRONA extremists, Kanyenkiko resigned in 1995.
Arusha Agreement and Election of Pierre Nkurunziza
Come July 1996, Major Buyoya enacted another coup to try to stabilize Burundi and stave off potential foreign military intervention. A regional embargo was placed on Burundi on the insistence of former Tanzanian president Julius Nyerere and Ugandan president Yoweri Museveni, pressuring Buyoya and the Burundian political elite to engage in peace negotiations.
Ten summits were held between June 1996 and August 2000 under the auspices of the United States, European Union, the African Union, Tanzania, South Africa, and other regional heads of state. Nyerere served as the lead mediator up until his death on October 14, 1999. South African President Nelson Mandela succeeded Nyerere in this role and managed to convince thirteen of the nineteen delegations sent by Burundi to sign the Arusha Peace and Reconciliation Agreement on August 28, 2000. The six parties who did not sign were all Tutsi-dominated, but eventually they signed it at a separate summit in Nairobi, Kenya, on September 20.
The Arusha Agreement laid out protocols to establish a new constitution, reintegrate the army, hold elections, and initiate economic development. In the immediate term, it set up a government that sought to fairly distribute power between the Hutu and Tutsi. For example, it required that the president and vice president come from different parties and political groups, and required all government positions to be distributed on a ratio of 60 percent Hutu and 40 percent Tutsi.
Sadly, the Arusha Agreement was not the end of the conflict. By some accounts, violence increased after the signing, as the principle Hutu rebel groups were not included among the delegations. Finally, in October 2003, the CNDD-FDD signed the Pretoria Protocol on Political, Defense, and Security Power Sharing in Burundi, which opened the path for them to be integrated into both the government and military. A similar document was ratified in 2006 between the then-ruling CNDD-FDD government and the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN).
Indirect elections were held for the presidency on August 19, 2005. Pierre Nkurunziza, secretary-general of CNDD-FDD, ran unopposed and was voted into the office for a five-year term by the National Assembly and the Senate with a final vote of 151–9.
Ascension of CNDD-FDD and the 2015 Constitutional Crisis
If the Arusha Agreement and Pretoria Protocol largely resolved the political and security disharmony in the short term, it did virtually nothing to address Burundi’s lack of economic self-sufficiency. As the ratio of arable land to population density grew worse, more and more Burundians became reliant on international aid and an expanding patronage system.
Nkurunziza used this patronage economy to set up crony networks on the local level, generating public support and goodwill among a beleaguered citizenry rendered destitute from years of civil war. This helps explain why Burundians raised little concern over the blatant power grabs the CNDD-FDD made one year after the 2006 legislative election.
Trumping up the allegation of an attempted coup, CNDD-FDD leadership systematically targeted potential rivals, including former presidents Pierre Buyoya and Domitien Ndayiziye, and even the party’s founder, Léonard Nyangoma.
The international community turned a blind eye to Nkurunziza’s blatant abuse of power, satisfied enough with a post-war situation that maintained a modicum of stability. As the CNDD-FDD realized what wide latitude they enjoyed in running Burundi, its suppression of press freedoms, political opponents, and voting rights grew more brazen as time went on.
In 2010, Nkurunziza and the CNDD-FDD easily won re-election due to a combination of the above and the various weaknesses of the political opposition. Further emboldened by this victory, the government responded to political dissent with increasing aggression. The Imbonerakure, the youth wing of the CNDD-FDD, is often used to intimidate potential rivals or civil servants who step out of line. Reporters Without Borders ranks Burundi at 160 out of 180 in terms of press freedom, putting it in the company of dictatorships like Tajikistan and crisis-ridden states like Libya and Somalia.
These subjugations only grew more intense as Nkurunziza’s second term neared its end in 2015. Rather than designating a successor, the then-president announced in April 2015 he would be running for a third term, claiming he was eligible, as his first term was not decided through universal suffrage. The opposition parties argued that doing so was unconstitutional, on top of the political oppression that had been ongoing for a decade by this point.
A coup attempt made in May 2015 was quickly thwarted, but the consequences cracked open major rifts in the Burundian military. Using the coup attempt as the perfect cover, the CNDD-FDD began purging its army of officers belonging to the political old guard. The fact that a large number of removed officers were Tutsi inflamed ethnic tensions further. Burundi’s reformed military was one of the few tangible successes of the Arusha Agreement, developing a positive reputation regionally through peacekeeping operations and at home as a symbol of ethnic unity.
In the wake of the coup, assassinations of former officers—those who had been part of the former rebel FDD and those whose time preceded the civil war—rose in frequency, encouraged or carried out by both the government and civilian militias. Some 400,000 Burundians have fled the country, trying to escape the simmering violence that could boil over at any time.
Nkurunziza built a cult of personality around himself
Pierre Nkurunziza maintained his grip on power not just through officer purges, cronyism, and silencing critical journalists, but he also built a cult of personality around himself. He was an affable and young African head of state and an avid fan of sports (which is why Burundi’s Primus League was the only football league to continue playing even as COVID-19 cases were rising across the continent). He also used his evangelical faith as a bridge between ethnic rivals.
Nkurunziza was due to hand over power to Ndayishimiye in August. Then, on June 9, the news broke that he had died after a sudden illness, reportedly of cardiac arrest. But speculation has been rife that he had been hospitalized with complications from COVID-19.
Cults of personality are fallible once the personality in question passes. Though Évariste Nyadishimiye was his chosen successor and looks to continue Nkurunziza’s style of governing, it is an inescapable fact that he does not have the same charisma as his late predecessor.
As the public health crisis from the pandemic worsens, alongside the economy’s continued downward trend, public support in the CNDD-FDD is likely to crack. The military has still not recovered from the turbulence of the post-2015 coup purges and remains a continued source of violent unrest. As the economic prospects for Burundi’s growing youth population continues to dwindle, more of them will join up with groups like the Imbonerakure and escalate harassment against other groups, oftentimes laying the groundwork for further, potentially fatal retaliation.
Once again, Burundi’s fate is in a volatile no-man’s land following the death of an influential and charismatic head of state, not too dissimilar from what it faced following Louis Rwagasore or Melchior Ndadaye’s assassinations. Regional and international cooperation will once again be needed to steer the country toward a more lasting and sustainable peace, and to address the needs of Burundian refugees and internally displaced people, who are the most at risk from both COVID-19 and any potential civil conflict that may burst forth from this tempestuous crossroads.