Country, east-central Africa.
Area: 10,740 sq mi (27,816 sq km). Population (2006 est.): 8,090,000.
Capital: Bujumbura. The population is divided primarily between the
approximately four-fifths who are Hutu and the approximately one-fifth
who are Tutsi. The first inhabitants, the Twa Pygmies, make up about 1%
of the population. Languages: Rundi (Kirundi), French (both official),
Swahili. Religions: Christianity (mostly Roman Catholic; also
Protestant, other Christians); also traditional beliefs. Currency:
Burundi franc. Burundi occupies a high plateau straddling the divide of
the Nile and Congo watersheds. The divide runs north to south, rising to
about 8,500 ft (2,600 m). The plateau contains the Ruvubu River basin,
the southernmost extension of the Nile basin. In the west the Rusizi
River connects Lake Kivu in the north with Lake Tanganyika to the south.
Burundi has a developing economy based primarily on agriculture. It is a
republic with two legislative houses, and its head of state and
government is the president assisted by vice presidents. Original
settlement by the Twa was followed by Hutu settlement, which began about
1000 ad. The Tutsi arrived sometime later; though a minority, they
established the kingdom of Burundi in the 16th century. In the 19th
century the area came within the German sphere of influence, but the
Tutsi remained in power. Following World War I, the Belgians were
awarded control of the area. Colonial conditions had intensified
Hutu-Tutsi ethnic animosities, and, as independence neared, hostilities
flared. Independence was granted in 1962 in the form of a kingdom ruled
by the Tutsi. In 1965 the Hutu rebelled but were brutally repressed. The
two groups clashed violently throughout the rest of the 20th century,
although the number of deaths did not approach the nearly one million
people killed in neighbouring Rwanda. In 2001 a power-sharing
transitional government was established and paved the way to the
promulgation of a new constitution and the installation of a new
government in 2005.
Burundi made its Olympic debut at the 1996 Summer Games in Atlanta.
Official name Republika y’u Burundi (Rundi); République du Burundi
(French) (Republic of Burundi)
Form of government republic with two legislative bodies (Senate ;
National Assembly )
Head of state and government President assisted by Vice Presidents
Official languages Rundi; French
Official religion none
Monetary unit Burundi franc (FBu)
Population estimate (2008) 8,691,000
Total area (sq mi) 10,740
Total area (sq km) 27,816
134 seats are indirectly elected; 15 additional seats (as of March 2007)
are designated for the Twa ethnic group, former presidents, and women
(to assure 30% quota for women).
2Excludes 18 additional seats appointed (as of the 2005 elections) to
assure specific ethnic and gender composition of National Assembly.
3Future move of capital to Gitega announced by president in March
country in east-central Africa, south of the Equator. The landlocked
country, a historic kingdom, is one of the few countries in Africa whose
borders were not determined by colonial rulers.
The vast majority of Burundi’s population is Hutu, traditionally a
farming people. Power, however, has long rested with the Tutsi minority,
which historically has controlled the army and most of the economy,
particularly the lucrative international export of coffee. Few real
cultural differences are distinguishable between the two peoples, and
both speak Rundi (Kirundi). Such linguistic homogeneity is rare in
sub-Saharan Africa and emphasizes the historically close cultural and
ethnic ties among the peoples in Burundi. Even so, ethnic conflict
between the Hutu and Tutsi has plagued the country since it gained
independence from Belgium in 1962, at a great cost in human life and
property. Few Burundians escaped the ensuing anarchy into which the
country was plunged when this interethnic violence flared anew in the
1990s, a bloody conflagration that well illustrated the Rundi proverb
“Do not call for lightning to strike down your enemies, for it also may
strike down your friends.” Neither the presence of an international
peacekeeping force beginning in the late 1990s nor the ratification of
an agreement to share power between Hutu and Tutsi were immediately
effective in curbing interethnic violence, which also spilled into the
neighbouring countries of Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of the
Congo. Burundians are now faced with the task of quelling ethnic
dissent, promoting unity, and rebuilding the country.
Burundi’s capital, Bujumbura, lies at the northeastern end of Lake
Tanganyika. The old section of the city comprises buildings from the
German and Belgian colonial periods, as well as a central market filled
with hundreds of vendors’ booths. The country’s second city, Gitega, is
also its cultural capital, containing the national museum and several
schools. Gitega lies near the southernmost source of the Nile River and
a spectacular waterfall, Chutes de la Kagera.
Burundi is bounded by Rwanda to the north, Tanzania to the east
and south, Lake Tanganyika to the southwest, and the Democratic Republic
of the Congo to the west.
Relief and drainage
Burundi’s topography includes the eastern flank of the Western Rift
Valley. A chain of mountains and high plateaus formed from ancient
Precambrian rock rises to 9,055 feet (2,760 metres) at Mount Heha, the
country’s highest point. In the northwest the narrow Imbo valley extends
southward from Rwanda to Lake Tanganyika and includes the Rusizi River,
which separates Burundi from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
Farther south and west, along the shores of Lake Tanganyika, the land
rises steeply to form part of the Congo-Nile divide, which reaches
elevations of 8,500 feet (2,600 metres). East of the divide, plateaus
slope gently to elevations of 5,000–6,000 feet (1,500–1,800 metres) to
the southeast; the Ruvyironza River flows northeast, cutting through the
plateaus. A few valleys and shallow lakes occupy the northern frontier
Light, forest-derived soils predominate, forming a thin layer of
humus over lateritic (iron-rich) subsoils. The best soils are formed
from alluvium, but they are confined primarily to the lower portions of
larger river valleys. Soil erosion, caused by a combination of steep
slopes and frequent rainfall, is a serious problem and creates a major
constraint on agriculture; ironically, erosion is further exacerbated by
the clearing of land for agricultural purposes.
Elevation is a major factor in Burundi’s climate, greatly moderating
its tropical character. The country’s generally high elevation produces
relatively cool temperatures, which average only about 70 °F (21 °C)
throughout the year in the central plateau area and usually drop to
below 60 °F (15 °C) at night. At lower elevations the annual average is
only slightly higher—for example, at Bujumbura in the Imbo valley.
Annual precipitation, which averages 60 to 70 inches (1,500 to 1,800 mm)
in the highest-lying areas, is only about 40 inches (1,000 mm) on the
shores of Lake Tanganyika. There is a short dry season from May to
Plant and animal life
The natural forest vegetation has almost entirely disappeared from
the landscape and is limited now primarily to higher mountain slopes. On
the plateau, wooded savanna is found at higher elevations, giving way to
more-open savanna on the lower slopes. Poaching has dealt a severe blow
to the country’s wildlife. The elephant population has virtually
disappeared, leaving only warthogs, baboons, and antelope as the less
As in Rwanda, Tutsi and Hutu are the principal ethnic communities,
with the Hutu constituting the overwhelming majority and the Tutsi a
significant minority. Other groups include the Twa Pygmies and a
sprinkling of Swahili-speaking peoples from Tanzania and the Democratic
Republic of the Congo. Common perceptions of Tutsi as uniformly tall and
graceful and of Hutu as short and stocky do not fit the reality of
physical variations because the two groups have frequently intermarried
over the centuries.
Traditionally, the Hutu have been farmers, while the Tutsi have been
pastoralists. Some regional status differences exist among the Tutsi,
with the Tutsi-Banyaruguru clan found primarily in the north of the
country and the Tutsi-Bahima primarily in the south. Historically, the
Tutsi-Banyaruguru generally dominated precolonial Burundi, while the
Tutsi-Bahima have generally dominated Burundi since independence.
Society was originally organized around family and clan loyalties.
Beginning in the 16th century, these ties were adapted to include a
Tutsi monarchy. Intervening between the king (mwami) and the masses was
a princely class (ganwa) that kept the ordinary Tutsi and Hutu on equal
footing. The relationship between the two groups began to change during
the colonial period, when the German and Belgian colonial administrators
favoured the Tutsi over the Hutu.
Burundi’s official languages are Rundi (Kirundi), a Bantu language
that is the standard medium of communication throughout the country, and
French. Swahili, the language of trade, is widely spoken in Bujumbura,
as is French. It is notable that Rundi is spoken by both the Hutu and
Tutsi, who together form the overwhelming majority of the country’s
population; such linguistic homogeneity is rare in sub-Saharan Africa.
The country has a relatively large Christian population, of which
about three-fifths are Roman Catholic. A large minority and even some
Roman Catholics also practice traditional religion. Muslims constitute
about one-tenth of the population. Church-state relations have been a
focal point of ethnic tension since the 1970s. The government of the
Second Republic (1976–87) attempted to curtail the social and
educational activities of the Roman Catholic Church because its policies
were thought to favour the Hutu over the Tutsi. After a military coup in
1987, the issue was temporarily defused, yet the church continues to be
seen by many Tutsi as a dangerously subversive institution.
The hilly geography of the country discourages village formation,
and traditional family compounds tend to be dispersed rather than
concentrated—a key settlement characteristic of the area. This pattern
has encouraged isolation rather than community and has contributed to
the ongoing ethnic conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsi. Nonetheless,
Burundi is heavily populated, with one of the highest densities in
Africa. Urban centres are rare, the exceptions including Gitega in the
central part of the country, Muyinga and Ngozi in the north, and
Bujumbura, the largest city, sprawled along the northern tip of Lake
Tanganyika. Civil unrest that began in the early to mid-1990s forced
thousands of Hutu to settle in refugee camps spread throughout the
countryside and in neighbouring countries. Around the same time, Burundi
received an influx of refugees from Rwanda, fleeing from the genocide
and subsequent political strife in their country. Rwandans also sought
refuge in Burundi in the early 21st century. A large portion of the
refugee population consists of women and children.
Although infant and child mortality rates are high, Burundi’s birth
rate is above average for central Africa, yet its population is not
growing at the same high rate as other countries in Africa, in part
because of the mass killings associated with the civil conflict there.
About half of the population is under age 15, which assures a continued
high growth rate. Only a small proportion of the population is
considered urban, the majority of which live in Bujumbura. Life
expectancy in Burundi, although low by world standards, is about the
average for Africa.
Agriculture is the economic mainstay of the country, with industrial
activities accounting for less than one-fourth of the gross domestic
product. Coffee, chiefly arabica, is the principal export crop and
source of foreign exchange. Cash crops of lesser importance include
cotton and tea. By the late 1990s, more than three-fifths of the
country’s population were living in poverty—a result of civil strife and
the ravages of war, the predominance of traditional subsistence
agriculture, the persistence of low income levels, chronic deficits in
the balance of trade, and heavy dependence on foreign aid. Western
countries and surrounding African countries imposed economic sanctions
against Burundi following a Tutsi-led military coup in 1996, which
affected all of Burundi’s exports and its oil imports. Sanctions were
eased beginning in 1997, a regional embargo was lifted in 1999, and much
of the country’s foreign debt was forgiven in 2005, but the process of
economic recovery has been slow.
Agriculture, forestry, and fishing
Approximately half of Burundi’s land area is considered cultivable,
and about one-third is suitable for pasture. Staple food crops include
beans, corn (maize), cassava (manioc), and sorghum. Arabica coffee
traditionally has been a major commodity for Burundi. The production of
coffee dropped by about half in the 1990s because of civil strife but
has since rebounded. Tea and sugar are also major export crops. Large
areas of cotton are cultivated, mainly in the Imbo valley; however,
cotton output has decreased to less than half the production levels of
the early 1990s. Although the density of livestock results in
overgrazing, the commercial value of livestock production is virtually
nil. By the early 21st century, Burundi’s forested area had shrunk to
less than 3 percent of the total land area in spite of reforestation
efforts. Lake Tanganyika and the smaller lakes and rivers of the
interior are rich sources of tilapia and other fish.
Resources and power
Unexploited mineral resources include considerable nickel deposits
in the eastern part of the country, as well as significant reserves of
vanadium, uranium, and phosphates. Geologic assessments also indicate
possible major petroleum reserves beneath Lake Tanganyika and in the
Rusizi valley. Mineral production, however, is generally limited and
includes niobium, tantalum, gold, tin, and wolframite (a source of
tungsten). Peat and firewood are the two major local sources of fuel.
Electrical production is mostly hydro-generated, a portion of which is
Industrial activity is limited to small-scale processing and
manufacturing plants, concentrated mostly in Bujumbura. Among the
largest industrial enterprises are a brewery and a textile company.
Agricultural products such as cotton, coffee, tea, and sugar are also
processed in the country. Despite an environment long characterized by
civil unrest, the government has remained committed to protecting the
Finance, trade, and services
Banque de la République du Burundi is the country’s central bank; it
issues the Burundi franc, the national currency, and regulates the
operation of national and foreign banks.
Beginning in the 1980s, Burundi experienced a growing trade deficit
and increasingly heavy dependence on foreign aid that continued into the
21st century. In 2005, however, Burundi benefited from international
On average, export earnings are small (less than half the cost of
imports), which reflects a steady growth of consumption and investment
coupled with a sharp decline in the international price of coffee and
rising import prices. About three-fifths of Burundi’s export earnings
come from coffee, with tea accounting for much of the remaining value.
Chief trading partners include Switzerland, Belgium-Luxembourg, and
Kenya and other nearby African countries.
Tourism in Burundi has great potential, but the country’s conflicts
have severely limited visitors to the region.
Labour and taxation
About nine-tenths of the labour force of Burundi is engaged in
agricultural activity. The workers’ right to form unions is protected by
the Labor Code of Burundi, but there has long been a fragile
relationship between unions and the government; union leaders have
sometimes been detained, and their records have been confiscated by the
police. Since the promulgation of the 2005 constitution, which mandated
an increased role for women in government, more Burundian women have
entered the workforce, rapidly increasing women’s presence not only in
government but in development programs and civil service as well.
Revenue sources include taxes on domestic goods and services,
international trade, import duties, and social security contributions.
Transportation and telecommunications
In the absence of railroads, only three major routes are available
across the country: the northern route by road from Bujumbura to Mombasa
(Kenya) via Rwanda; the central route by barge down the Rusizi River to
Lake Tanganyika, then to Kigoma (Tanzania); and the southern route
across Lake Tanganyika to Kalemie (Democratic Republic of the Congo). A
secondary road network connects Bujumbura to various provincial
capitals. In 1992 the Bridge of Concord, the country’s longest bridge,
was opened; it traverses the Rusizi River. An international airport is
located in Bujumbura.
By the early 21st century, telephone services had increased, as had
the number of mobile cellular phones in use. Internet access is also
expanding in Burundi.
Government and society
Under the 2005 constitution, power is to be shared by the Hutus and
Tutsis. Executive power is vested in the president, who is ordinarily
elected directly to a five-year term, renewable once. The president
appoints the Council of Ministers. There is a bicameral legislature,
with power exercised by the National Assembly, which is mandated to
comprise 60 percent Hutu and 40 percent Tutsi, and by the Senate, which
includes one Hutu and one Tutsi representative from each province, with
three seats reserved for former presidents. In addition, three seats in
each house are reserved for the Twa, and at least 30 percent of the
seats in both houses are to be held by women. Members of both houses,
most of whom are elected by universal suffrage, serve five-year terms.
Burundi is divided into 17 provinces, which are further divided into
communes. Power at the local level rests in the hands of centrally
Burundi’s legal system is based on German and Belgian civil codes
and customary law. The country’s highest court is the Supreme Court.
Courts of appeal, administrative courts, a constitutional court, and
tribunals of first instance, trade, and labour also exist in Burundi.
In 2005 the United Nations Security Council adopted a resolution to
create a National Truth and Reconciliation Commission, as well as a
special court to prosecute war crimes and human rights violations.
Political parties are legally recognized only if they show a
national rather than a regional or ethnic membership. Unity for National
Progress (Unité pour le Progrès National; UPRONA) was founded in 1958
and dissolved in 1976 after a coup, later reemerging as the country’s
only recognized political party for a period of time. Many parties have
since been created, including Front for Democracy in Burundi (Front pour
la Démocratie au Burundi; FRODEBU), which only emerged in 1992 after the
constitution promulgated that year provided for multiparty politics; the
National Council for the Defense of Democracy (Conseil National pour la
Défense de la Democratie; CNDD), established in 1994; and the offshoot
National Council for the Defense of Democracy–Forces for the Defense of
Democracy (Conseil National pour la Défense de la Democratie–Forces pour
la Défense de la Democratie; CNDD-FDD), which formally registered as a
party in 2005, although it existed prior to that year.
Women have had the right to vote since 1961, but few have held
political positions of power; a notable exception was Sylvie Kinigi,
Burundi’s first female prime minister, who held the office for almost
seven months beginning in July 1993. Female representation in Burundi
government increased following the 2005 constitutional mandate that at
least 30 percent of the seats in both houses be held by women. Indeed,
in the post-transition government installed in 2005, women constituted
about one-third of both the National Assembly and the Senate. Burundi’s
constitution has become a model for other countries in Africa.
Burundi’s military consists primarily of an army, with a small air
force contingent. Historically, the bulk of the armed forces were
Tutsi-Banyaruguru. A new armed forces, mandated to comprise equal
numbers of Hutu and Tutsi, was created in December 2004 and absorbed
more than 20,000 former rebels. Burundi troops have participated in
international peacekeeping missions in Africa.
Health and welfare
The most common health problems stem from communicable diseases and
nutritional deficiencies, which account for most infant and child
mortality. Those suffering from malnutrition receive some relief from
feeding centres set up by international aid workers. Malaria, cholera,
measles, influenza, and diarrhea are the major causes of death. Sleeping
sickness is widespread in the lakeshore areas, and pulmonary diseases
(tuberculosis) are common in the central highlands. HIV/AIDS is also a
serious health concern. At the beginning of the 21st century, the number
of reported cases appeared to stabilize in urban locales but had
escalated at an alarming rate in rural areas. Burundi has limited
hospital facilities and an insufficient number of medical personnel;
these resources have been further strained by civil strife.
The traditional settlement pattern is one of family compounds
(rugo), with circular one-room houses—often hidden by banana
trees—rising above the hedges of individual enclosures. Urban areas
contain colonial-style buildings as well as more-modern housing. Homes
that utilized local resources were being built at the beginning of the
21st century. The new dwellings were intended to help relieve a chronic
housing shortage, caused in part by the high population density in urban
areas and exacerbated by the return of refugees who fled the country
during the late 20th-century civil strife.
About one-half of the country is literate, a rate that is lower than
neighbouring countries and well below the world average. Primary
education begins at age seven and is compulsory for six years; secondary
education, divided into programs of four and then three years, is not
mandatory. Education is free, and instruction is in Rundi at the primary
level and in French at the secondary level. The distribution of the
school-age population shows a striking disproportion in enrollment
figures between primary and secondary schools, the former accounting for
more than four-fifths of total enrollments. Only a small fraction of
primary-school students are admitted to the secondary level, and fewer
still are able to gain admission to the University of Burundi at
Bujumbura or one of the few colleges in the country.
Ethnic discrimination in schools remains a politically sensitive
issue. The overrepresentation of Tutsi at the secondary and university
levels translates into the absence of significant avenues of upward
mobility for the Hutu majority and the Twa, which means that Tutsi enjoy
a virtual monopoly on civil-service positions. Despite outbreaks of
ethnic strife, most schools have continued to function amid the unrest.
Daily life, social customs, and the arts
Much of Burundi’s rich cultural heritage, most notably folk songs and
dances, was intended to extol the virtues of kingship; however, since
the fall of the monarchy in 1966 (and particularly after a massacre of
Hutu in 1972), such cultural expression has waned. Burundian daily life
has since been conditioned by the exigencies of survival in a time of
civil strife and ethnic hatred, and many important social institutions,
such as the family and the village council, have lost their force,
weakened by political chaos and the wholesale displacement of
populations. Once widely celebrated events include the annual sorghum
festival (umuganuro), the occasion for a magnificent display of
traditional dances by court dancers (intore). Also participating in the
festival are drummers beating the Karyenda (“sacred drum”), an emblem of
the monarchy—their performance is intended to give both musical and
symbolic resonance to this festival and to other ceremonial occasions.
Government efforts to promote interethnic harmony through displays of a
shared cultural heritage have been sporadic and only modestly
successful. Burundian museums that celebrate the country’s heritage
include the National Museum in Gitega and the Living Museum in
Bujumbura, which also includes botanical gardens and animal exhibits.
Throughout history, Burundians have enjoyed a tradition of expression
in the visual arts. Decorated papyrus panels, which feature geometric
patterns and often depict themes from Burundian legend, are prized by
collectors of ethnic arts, as are Burundian-made swords and drums.
Ceramic manufacture, introduced by Italian missionaries in the 1960s,
has also been an important form of artistic expression, and Burundian
potters have added indigenous elements to this imported medium. Other
arts and crafts include basketry and beadwork. The dye usually used to
colour Burundian handicrafts is derived from natural plant extracts.
Burundian conversations and social gatherings often feature
recitations, singing, and the exchange of jokes, proverbs, and tall
tales. Only a few books have been written to date in Rundi, most of them
collections of contemporary poetry and folklore. The few writers to have
emerged since independence—notably the novelists Séraphin Sésé, Louis
Katamari, and Richard Ndayizigamiye, along with the memoirist Michel
Kakoya—are little known outside the country. Founded in 1989, the
National Library in Bujumbura is a repository for Burundian literature.
Traditional activities such as drumming and dancing contain aspects
of both culture and competition: the Intore Dancers, a group that
celebrates national folklore, has won numerous international folk dance
competitions, and drummers compete with the traditional Karyenda drums.
Burundi’s best-known cultural export is a troupe of traveling musicians
called Les Maîtres-Tambours du Burundi (Drummers of Burundi). This
group, made up of as many as 30 percussionists and dancers, produces an
energetic, polyrhythmic sound organized around the inkiranya drum. The
addition of the amashako drum, which provides a continuous beat, and the
complimentary rhythm of the ibishikiso drum complete the impressive
sound. The group has been widely influential and has made many
recordings. Burundian singer Khadja Nin has also released several
recordings, with lyrics in Swahili, Rundi, and French.
Sports and recreation
Since the 1990s Burundi has tried to use sports to bring together
the country’s warring factions. Football (soccer) is popular, and
Burundi has competed in several African Cup of Nations championships.
Burundians have also excelled in athletics (track and field), none more
than Vénuste Niyongabo, who won a gold medal (Burundi’s first medal) in
the 5,000-metre race at the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
Media and publishing
Access to radio and television is limited. Although the 2005
constitution provides for freedom of the press, the government still
imposes restrictions. In addition, journalists have engaged in
self-censorship. Le Renouveau du Burundi, a daily newspaper published in
French, is owned by the government. Other periodicals are published on a
weekly basis or less frequently.
Ellen Kahan Eggers
This discussion focuses on Burundi from the 16th century. For a
treatment of earlier periods and of the country in its regional context,
see Central Africa, history of.
Unlike most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the boundaries of
Burundi were not drawn by European powers. Rather, they reflect a state
that was developed by the Burundian monarchy. The country was originally
populated by the Twa, a Pygmy hunter-gatherer population. Beginning
around ad 1000, Hutu farmers, who now constitute the largest proportion
of the population, arrived in the region. Sometime later the Tutsi
entered the country, and a Tutsi monarchy developed in the 16th century,
founded by Ntare Rushatsi (Ntare I). According to one tradition, Ntare I
came from Rwanda; according to other sources, he came from Buha in the
southeast, from which he laid the foundation of the original kingdom in
the neighbouring Nkoma region. The relationship between the different
groups in the state was complex. The king (mwami) was Tutsi, but a
princely class (ganwa), which consisted of the potential heirs to the
throne, interceded between the king and the Tutsi and Hutu masses.
Identification as either a Tutsi or Hutu was fluid. While physical
appearance did correspond somewhat to one’s identification (the Tutsi
were generally presumed to be light-skinned and tall; the Hutu,
dark-skinned and short), the difference between the two groups was not
always immediately apparent, owing to intermarriage and the use of a
common language (Rundi) by both groups. Tutsis were traditionally cattle
owners (cattle were a symbol of wealth in precolonial Burundi), while
the Hutu were agriculturalists. However, by societal standards a rich
Hutu could be identified as a Tutsi, and a poor Tutsi could be
identified as a Hutu.
Burundi under colonial rule
Europeans did not enter Burundi until the second half of the 19th
century. The terrain that had made it difficult for slave traders to
exploit the country also created problems for European colonizers.
English explorers Richard Burton and John Hanning Speke, generally
credited as the first Europeans to visit Burundi, entered the country in
1858. They explored Lake Tanganyika as they searched for the source of
the Nile. In 1871 two more Britons, Henry Morton Stanley and David
Livingstone, also explored the lake.
Burundi, along with Rwanda and Tanganyika, became part of the German
Protectorate of East Africa in 1890 (see German East Africa). Burundi
and Rwanda (as the mandate of Ruanda-Urundi) were awarded to Belgium
after World War I, when Germany lost its colonies. Under the Belgian
colonial administrators, Burundi was reorganized in the late 1920s, with
the result that most chiefs and subchiefs were eliminated.
It would be overly simplistic to blame all of Burundi’s postcolonial
ethnic troubles on European ignorance of African culture, but such
ignorance did contribute significantly to these problems. Assuming that
ethnicity could be clearly distinguished by physical characteristics and
then using the ethnic differences found in their own countries as
models, Germany and especially Belgium created a system whereby the
categories of Hutu and Tutsi were no longer fluid. The Tutsi—because of
their generally lighter skin and greater height and as a result of
European bias toward those physical characteristics—were considered
superior to Hutu and given preference in local administration. Thus,
power continued to be concentrated in the Tutsi minority.
After World War II, Burundians began to press for independence.
Although the traditional leaders of Burundi and Rwanda were denied legal
status for a political party they formed in 1955, three years later
Unity for National Progress (Unité pour le Progrès National; UPRONA) was
established in Burundi. In 1959 the mwami was made a constitutional
monarch in Burundi.
Legislative elections were held in 1961 and resulted in victory for
UPRONA. Of the 64 legislative seats, the ethnically mixed party won 58,
of which 22 were held by Hutu members of UPRONA. The party leader was
Prince Rwagasore, a Tutsi and the eldest son of Mwami Mwambutsa.
Rwagasore represented populist aspirations and was the strongest
supporter of the monarchy. He became prime minister and formed a new
government. His assassination on Oct. 13, 1961, ushered in a crisis from
which the country has struggled to recover ever since. Despite this
crisis, Burundi became independent on July 1, 1962.
The First and Second republics
Discord and violence have marked Burundi since independence.
Although bloodshed has not occurred on the scale seen in Rwanda, ethnic
conflict has resulted in hundreds of thousands of deaths and hundreds of
thousands of people being displaced from their homes. The first incident
did not occur until January 1965, when Pierre Ngendandumwe, a Hutu, took
office as prime minister for the second time, at the request of the
constitutional monarch, Mwami Mwambutsa. Ngendandumwe was assassinated
by a Tutsi gunman on January 15, before he had a chance to establish a
government. Joseph Bamina, another Hutu, then served as prime minister
until elections could be held later that year. Although elections gave
the Hutu a clear majority of seats in the National Assembly, Mwambutsa
ignored the results and appointed a Tutsi—Léopold Biha, his private
secretary—prime minister. Mwambutsa insisted that power would continue
to rest with the crown, even when he chose to leave the country after an
unsuccessful coup led by a group of Hutu officers in October; he decreed
that his son, Prince Charles Ndizeyeto, was to rule in his absence.
Control of Burundi fell completely into the hands of the Tutsi before
the end of the next year. After the abortive coup, some 34 Hutu officers
were executed, and Tutsi control was further strengthened when Michel
Micombero was appointed prime minister in July 1966. A Tutsi-Bahima from
Bururi province, Micombero had played a key role in thwarting the 1965
coup and in organizing anti-Hutu riots in the countryside. Also in July
1966, Mwambutsa was deposed by his son, who began what was to be an
extremely short reign, as he himself was deposed by Tutsi politicians in
November. With the formal overthrow of the monarchy and the formal
proclamation of the First Republic (with Micombero as president), the
last obstacle in the path of Tutsi domination was removed.
No other event cast greater discredit on the First Republic than the
genocidal killings perpetrated against the Hutu community in April and
May 1972. Although Hutu initially killed some 2,000 Tutsi, ultimately an
estimated 100,000 to 200,000 Hutu were killed, as well as another 10,000
Tutsi. The carnage took the lives of approximately 5 percent of the
population and virtually eliminated all educated Hutu, as well as
causing more than 100,000 Hutu to flee the country. Besides creating
deep and lasting hatred on both sides of the ethnic divide, the events
of 1972 became the source of considerable tension within the Tutsi
minority, thus paving the way for the overthrow of Micombero in 1976 and
the advent of the Second Republic under the presidency of Jean-Baptiste
Bagaza. Though himself a Tutsi-Bahima from Bururi (like Micombero),
Bagaza set out to reinvigorate the UPRONA on an unprecedented scale. At
the same time, every effort was made to bring the Roman Catholic Church
firmly under the control of the state, as the Tutsi-controlled
government thought the church’s policies favoured the Hutu. As a result
of the government’s efforts, the activities of the church were
The Third Republic
The crisis in church-state relations was the critical factor behind
Maj. Pierre Buyoya’s decision to overthrow the Second Republic in
September 1987 and proclaim a Third Republic. Buyoya, also a
Tutsi-Bahima from Bururi, took the title of president and presided over
a country that was ruled by a 30-member military junta, the Military
Committee for National Salvation.
The 1987 coup signaled an important shift of policy on the issue of
church-state relations, and, by implication, on the Hutu-Tutsi problem.
Buyoya repealed many of the restrictions placed upon the church and
released political prisoners he felt had been improperly detained by the
previous administration. Ironically, Buyoya’s call for liberalization,
while significantly raising the expectations of the Hutu masses, did
little to alter the rigidly discriminatory practices of Tutsi civil
servants in the provinces. The gap between Hutu expectations and the
realities of Tutsi control lay at the root of the killings that erupted
again in August 1988.
More than 20,000 people were killed in the northern parts of Burundi,
the overwhelming majority of Hutu origin. As in 1972, the initial
outburst of violence—in the wake of countless provocations by local
Tutsi officials—came from Hutu elements. Unlike his predecessor in 1972,
however, President Buyoya’s response to the crisis was surprisingly
conciliatory. For one thing, the existence of a Hutu-Tutsi problem was
explicitly recognized by the government, along with the need for
appropriate solutions. Moreover, a conscious effort was made to achieve
parity of ethnic representation within the government, as evidenced by
the cabinet Buyoya formed in October 1988, which contained a Hutu
majority. Finally, and most importantly, a national commission was
established to make specific recommendations to the government to
“protect and strengthen the unity of the people of Burundi.”
Buyoya’s apparent progressive leadership led to the adoption of a new
constitution in March 1992, which prohibited political organizations
that adhered to “tribalism, divisionalism, or violence” and stipulated
that all political parties must include both Hutu and Tutsi
representatives. There followed the country’s first free, democratic
election in June 1993, in which Melchior Ndadaye, a Hutu who ran against
Buyoya, was elected president. Ndadaye announced amnesty for many
political prisoners and created a carefully balanced government of Hutu
and Tutsi, including Sylvie Kinigi, a Tutsi woman, as prime minister.
Ndadaye was assassinated during an attempted military coup on Oct.
21, 1993, and the wave of violence that followed sparked the country’s
descent into civil war. As many as 150,000 Tutsi were killed in
retribution, and perhaps 50,000 additional people were killed in smaller
outbreaks. Amid the violence, leaders of the attempted coup and members
of Ndadaye’s government vied for power. The main political parties
finally chose Cyprien Ntaryamira, a Hutu, as president. Ntaryamira took
office in February 1994, but two months later he and Rwandan president
Juvénal Habyarimana were killed when the plane they were on crashed near
the airport in Kigali, Rwanda. Fighting intensified, hundreds more were
killed, and calls from the United Nations to halt the violence initiated
nighttime curfews. In September 1994 a commission agreed to a
power-sharing coalition government headed by Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, a
Hutu. Fighting continued throughout the country during the nearly two
years of coalition government.
The Tutsi-led army staged yet another coup against the government in
July 1996 and reinstalled Buyoya as president. He faced considerable
internal and international protest, including economic sanctions against
the country, and many countries throughout the world had not recognized
Buyoya’s government by the end of the decade. Economic sanctions were
eased in 1997, and an embargo was lifted in 1999.
The path toward peace
Peace talks that began in 1995 among the rival factions were
initiated and moderated by Julius Nyerere, former president of Tanzania.
The talks were successfully concluded in 2001 under the leadership of
former president of South Africa Nelson Mandela, who had assumed the
role of mediator after Nyerere’s death in 1999. Under the terms of the
Arusha Agreement, a multinational, interim security contingent would
enforce the peace in Burundi. A new government was installed on Nov. 1,
2001. The country was to be led by a Tutsi president (Buyoya) for 18
months and a Hutu president (Domitien Ndayizeye) for the next 18 months.
Sporadic fighting continued between Hutu rebel groups and the
In April 2003 Ndayizeye succeeded Buyoya as president under the terms
of the 2001 agreement, and later that year Ndayizeye and rebel leaders
signed peace accords that largely ended the civil war. A new
power-sharing constitution was promulgated in 2005, and Pierre
Nkurunziza, a Hutu, was elected president. Under the terms of the
constitution, as the first post-transition president, he was elected by
a two-thirds majority of the legislature, rather than by universal
suffrage. The following year, the last remaining Hutu rebel group signed
a peace agreement with the Burundi government, and there was hope that
Burundians would be able to focus on promoting unity and rebuilding the
Ellen Kahan Eggers