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Burundi: at the roots of an old and particularly complex crisis …

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According to FRANCEINFO website, the situation is very tense in Burundi, where presidential, legislative and municipal elections are to be held on May 20, 2020. The reasons for this very complex crisis plunge into the past. To apprehend them, you have to go back in the history of this country, a former German and then Belgian colony, which became independent in 1962. A history during which hundreds of thousands of people, Hutus like Tutsis, were murdered. Some keys to try to understand a more than complex reality.

The crisis in Burundi is part of “the scene (of Africa) of the Great Lakes, in ( countries ) disrupted by massacres and Dantesque exoduses” , noted in 1998 the journalist Jean Hatzfeld in Libératio n. In fact, Burundi’s recent past seems to be nothing but a long litany of massacres and counter-massacres between the Hutu and Tutsi communities…

Independence

1962: at independence, Burundi is ruled by a king, Mwanbutsa IV, from a monarchy which appeared in the 16th century.

1965: legislative elections see the success of Hutu candidates, the majority community in Burundi. But the king chooses as Prime Minister Léopold Biha, a Tutsi. In October, a coup led by Hutus failed. Then begins severe repression against this community which kills thousands.

1966: the Minister of Defense (Tutsi), Michel Micombero, overthrows the monarchy, proclaims the Republic, and establishes a military dictatorship. The Tutsis “then dominate the army and the government while the Hutu elites are practically removed from state institutions,” notes an article by researcher René Lemarchand posted online on the Sciences-Po website.

In 1972, unprecedented massacres

1972: a revolt led by Hutus breaks out against the power led by the Tutsi minority. It leads to unprecedented massacres, which leave an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 people dead.

Nothing in the country’s turbulent history is comparable to the scale (of these) killings Researcher René Lemarchand

“The vast majority of those killed were of Hutu origin (…) The perpetrators of the killings were, for the most part, from the Tutsi minority , according to this source. However, not all Tutsis were criminals, not all the victims were Hutu. (Within the two communities) Hutu and Tutsi, there were victims and criminals, but at separate periods and with different levels of engagement “ , wishes to qualify the article of the researcher.

Mandated by the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, workers search for human remains at the site of a mass grave in the province of Karusi (northeastern Burundi).  Six mass graves, dating back to the 1972 massacres, have been discovered in the region.  They delivered the remains of some 6,000 people.
Mandated by the country’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, workers search for human remains at the site of a mass grave in the province of Karusi (northeastern Burundi). Six mass graves, dating back to the 1972 massacres, have been discovered in the region. They delivered the remains of some 6,000 people. (BERTHIER MUGIRANEZA / AP / SIPA / SIPA)

The establishment of democracy and the arrival of a Hutu in power

1987:  a Tutsi officer, Pierre Buyoya, seizes power. In 2020, the latter continues to count in the political landscape of the country as abroad: he is indeed high representative of the African Union (AU) for Mali and the Sahel. Having come to power through a coup, he was the one who installed democracy. At the same time, he tried to bring communities together by establishing a day of national unity and by forming a government with as many Tutsis as Hutus.

June 1993: Pierre Buyoya organizes  “the first free elections, in a country where 15% of Tutsis direct 85% of Hutus. (Himself candidate, Editor’s note) He is beaten by the natural ethnic reflex of the voters”, explains Liberation. The winner, Melchior Ndadaye, is the first Hutu to accede to the supreme magistracy and the first democratically elected president of Burundi. 

The assassination of the first Hutu president and the start of a long civil war

October 1993: Tutsi extremists assassinate Melchior Ndadaye, but their coup d’etat fails. “With his severe beard, his burning gaze, the portrait of Melchior Ndadaye hanging (today) on the wall of the offices of the Burundi presidency  (…)  has something intense and poignant. At his side, the other solemn faces of Burundian leaders have all, as a side moving. an air of tragedy floats in this gallery. most of these presidents have left office by force, “ says the journalist Jean-Philippe Rémy in the World .. .

the role of Pierre Buyoya in the death of his successor remains unclear even today …

President & nbsp; Melchior Ndadaye, Burundi's first Hutu leader, assassinated in 1993 during an attempted coup.  Undated photo.
President Melchior Ndadaye, Burundi’s first Hutu leader, assassinated in 1993 during an attempted coup. Undated photo. (DABROWSKI / AFP)

First, a set of massacres of Tutsis, in retaliation. Then, a takeover by the predominantly Tutsi armed forces; in other words, counter-massacres. Journalist Jean-Philippe RémyLe Monde

A civil war then broke out which lasted until 2005. It opposed the army, still “very largely composed and led by Tutsis, to Hutu rebellions” ( Jeune Afrique ). There are two rebellion movements: the National Liberation Forces (FNL), which will notably be led by Agathon Rwasa, presidential candidate in 2020; the National Council for the Defense of Democracy and Forces for the Defense of Democracy (CNDD-FDD), led in particular … by Pierre Nkurunziza, the current president of Burundi. Estimated war balance: 300,000 dead.

1994: 
sou under the aegis of the UN, power-sharing is established between Hutus and Tutsis. Hutu Cyprien Ntaryamira takes the presidency, Tutsi Anatole Kanyenkiko is appointed Prime Minister. But Cyprien Ntaryamira was killed with his Rwandan counterpart, Juvénal Habyarimana, in the attack which targeted his plane on April 6, 1994. At the same time, genocide was perpetrated in Rwanda by extremist Hutus. The massacres will continue until July. Goal: get rid of the Tutsi population, but also of the moderate Hutus. Balance sheet: 800,000 to a million people killed in neighboring Rwanda.

In Burundi, Cyprien Ntaryamira is replaced by the President of the Assembly, Sylvestre Ntibantunganya.

Pierre Buyoya, the return

1996: “In an atmosphere of sustained fear, Pierre Buyoya, at the head of Tutsi officers, overthrows the regime of Sylvestre Ntibantunganya, legitimate Hutu president, without a gunshot, in half an hour” , says Liberation . He then strikes “on the right to put an end to the brutality of the Tutsi army against the Hutus, on the left he isolates the Hutu rebellion at the cost of a ruthless policy of displacement camps.”

Civil war ends (very gradual)

August 28, 2000: Many African heads of state witness the signing of the Arusha Accords, under the aegis of the South African Nelson Mandela, to end the civil war. “The aura and firmness of Madiba  (the nickname of Nelson Mandela, editor’s note)  will be the reason for the last Burundian resistances observes Jeune Afrique. The agreement establishes “a system of power-sharing between the two main ethnic groups, Hutu and Tutsi. It clearly specifies that no president can direct Burundi for more than 10 years”, specifies RFI. And plans a three-year transition period during which Pierre Buyoya will remain president. The fighting will continue for several years. Most rebel movements will gradually lay down their arms. Some of them turn into political parties.

Pierre Buyoya (right), then president of Burundi, and Nelson Mandela (left), former president of South Africa, in Johannesburg on May 5, 2001
Pierre Buyoya (right), then president of Burundi, and Nelson Mandela (left), former president of South Africa, in Johannesburg on May 5, 2001 (ALEXANDER JOE / AFP)

The coming to power of Pierre Nkurunziza (who is still there …)

April 30, 2003  : Pierre Buyoya hands over power to Domitien Ndayizeye. The latter remained in power until 2005.

2005: the proclamation of a new Constitution. Former rebel leader  Pierre Nkurunziza is elected president. And re-elected in 2010.

2015: Pierre Nkurunziza intends to reform the Constitution. “Tailor-made”  ( Jeune Afrique ), the reform allows the outgoing president to run for a third term, thus calling into question the Arusha agreement (ban on a leader staying more than 10 years in power). It also gives him full powers … The vote takes place “in a context of very strong political repression, marked by the call for a boycott of the opposition and civil society in exile” , observes RFI.

A regime accused of sinking more and more into a mystical-religious drift carried by a president convinced that his power is of divine essence RFI

May 17, 2018: the new Constitution is adopted by referendum with more than 70% of the vote. It authorizes Pierre Nkurunziza to “run for two seven-year terms from 2020” ( La Croix ). The regime did everything to make sure the yes prevailed, in particular by suppressing demonstrations of the opposition. Result: at least 1,200 dead and more than 400,000  refugees.

June 7, 2018: Pierre Nkurunziza proclaims the new Constitution. But announce that he will not run again …

Hutus-Tutsi antagonism

To try to explain the situation in Burundi, one can only “reduce a complicated drama to its simplest common denominator”, as explained by the researcher René Lemarchand already cited … To show the full extent of this complexity, we can cite the example of Pierre Nkurunziza, the current president of Burundi, himself of Hutu father and Tutsi mother …

When the first Europeans arrived in the region, “two groups, Hutu and Tutsi, share the same territory, speak the same language, Kinyarwanda, have the same religious beliefs and the same cultural practices,” wrote the doctor. historian Yves Ternon in an article in La Revue Historique de la Shoah about the genocide in Rwanda.

“It was the colonizing powers, the Germans, then the Belgians (…) who made Tutsis and Hutus two different ethnic groups. The colonists preferred the Tutsis, described as  ‘black Europeans’ and judged by superior intelligence, at the expense of qualified Hutus  ‘Bantu Negroes’, reduced to the condition of farmers. the Tutsis were given priority in access to missionary schools and recruitment for administrative jobs s , complete RFI, always about the genocide in Rwanda.

Exodus of refugees on a road from Rwanda in July 1994 at the time of the genocide perpetrated by Hutu extremists against the Tutsi population and moderate Hutus
Exodus of refugees on a road from Rwanda in July 1994 at the time of the genocide perpetrated by Hutu extremists against the Tutsi population and moderate Hutus (JOS? NICOLAS / HANS LUCAS)

Can we make the link between the situation in Burundi and Rwanda  ?

“Despite the apparent analogies between the two societies, Burundi has a pre-colonial and colonial history different from that of Rwanda,” explains historian Jean-Pierre Chrétien in an interview with Jeune Afrique  (paid access).

At independence, the ‘Hutu-Tutsi question’ did not arise. But the geographic and cultural neighborhood of Rwanda could only make itself felt The historian Jean-Pierre ChrétienJeune Afrique

Before 1962, the two countries, which then formed a single entity, were colonized by the same European powers: Germany first, Belgium second.

“In 1965, in 1972, in 1988 or in 1993, the waves of massacres or counter-massacres targeting the Burundian Hutus or Tutsis often echoed Rwandan political tensions. But these crises are linked first of all to the contradictions of the Burundian domestic policy “, continues the historian. “But that does not prevent us from being lucid about the influences from one country to another. We have observed, since the 1960s, the transfer to Burundi of the vocabulary used by Rwandan extremists”.

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